World rings in New Year as Omicron mutes festivities

Pacific nations the first to usher in 2022 amid hope the COVID pandemic will ease in the upcoming year

Fireworks explode over the Sydney Opera House and Harbor Bridge as New Year's Eve celebrations begin in Sydney, December 31, 2021. (Dean Lewins/AAP Image via AP)
Fireworks explode over the Sydney Opera House and Harbor Bridge as New Year's Eve celebrations begin in Sydney, December 31, 2021. (Dean Lewins/AAP Image via AP)

PARIS (AP) — Sorrow for the dead and dying, fear of more infections to come and hopes for an end to the coronavirus pandemic were — again — the bittersweet cocktail with which the world said good riddance to 2021 and ushered in 2022.

New Year’s Eve, which used to be celebrated globally with a free-spirited wildness, felt instead like a case of deja vu, with the fast-spreading Omicron variant again filing hospitals.

At the La Timone hospital in the southern French city of Marseille, Dr. Fouad Bouzana could only sigh Friday when asked what 2022 might bring.

“Big question,” he said. “It’s starting to become exhausting, because the waves come one after another.”

The pandemic game-changer of 2021 —- vaccinations — continued apace, with some people getting jabs while others stocked up on drinks and treats for subdued feasting. Some milestones were met: Pakistan said it had fully vaccinated 70 million of its 220 million people this year and Britain said it met its goal of offering a vaccine booster shot to all adults by Friday.

In Russia, President Vladimir Putin mourned the dead, praised Russians for their strength in difficult times and soberly warned that the pandemic “isn’t retreating yet.” Russia’s virus task force has reported 308,860 COVID-19 deaths but its state statistics agency says the death toll has been more than double that.

“I would like to express words of sincere support to all those who lost their dear ones,” Putin said in a televised address broadcast just before midnight in each of Russia’s 11 time zones.

Indians, wearing face masks to help curb the spread of the coronavirus, hold the cutouts to welcome 2022 on New Year’s Eve in Ahmedabad, India, December 31, 2021. (AP Photo/Ajit Solanki)

Elsewhere, the venue that many chose for New Year’s celebrations was the same place they became overly familiarly with during lockdowns: their homes. Because of Omicron’s virulence, cities cancelled traditional New Year’s Eve concerts and fireworks displays to avoid drawing large crowds.

Pope Francis also canceled his New Year’s Eve tradition of visiting the life-sized manger set up in St. Peter’s Square, again to avoid a crowd. In an unusual move for Francis, the 85-year-old pontiff donned a surgical mask for a Vespers service of prayer and hymns Friday evening as he sat in an armchair. But he also delivered a homily standing and unmasked.

“A sense of being lost has grown in the world during the pandemic,’’ Francis told the faithful in St. Peter’s Basilica.

Face masks again became mandatory Friday on the streets of Paris, a rule widely ignored among afternoon crowds that thronged the sunbathed Champs-Elysées, where a planned fireworks display was cancelled. With nearly 50% of Paris-region intensive care beds filled by COVID-19 patients, hospitals were ordered to postpone non-essential surgeries.

France, Britain, Portugal and Australia were among that countries that set new records for COVID-19 infections as 2021 gave way to 2022.

France’s unprecedented 232,200 new cases Friday marked its third day running above the 200,000 mark. The UK was close behind, with 189,846 new cases, also a record. In London, officials said as many as 1 in 15 people were infected with the virus in the week before Christmas. Hospitalizations of COVID-19 patients in the UK rose 68% in the last week, to the highest levels since February.

Pedestrians, some wearing protective face masks to prevent the spread of the COVID-19, walk in a street market in Paris, France, December 31, 2021. (AP Photo/Thibault Camus)

Yet boisterous New Year’s Eve celebrations kicked off in the Serbian capital of Belgrade where, unlike elsewhere in Europe, mass gatherings were allowed despite fears of the Omicron variant. Large crowds gathered Friday evening for outdoor concerts, fireworks and a light show, and hotels and bars were packed. One medical expert predicted that Serbia will see thousands of new COVID-19 infections after the holidays.

More than 300,000 visitors were expected in Las Vegas for events including a New Year’s Eve fireworks show on the Strip that was canceled last year due to the pandemic.

Australia went ahead with its celebrations despite reporting a record 32,000 new cases. Thousands of fireworks lit up the sky over Sydney’s Harbor Bridge and Opera House at midnight. Yet amid the virus surge, crowds were far smaller than in pre-pandemic years.

Neighboring New Zealand opted for a more low-key approach, replacing its fireworks show in Auckland with a lights display projected onto landmarks including the Sky Tower and Harbor Bridge.

In Japan, writer Naoki Matsuzawa said he would spend the next few days cooking and delivering food to the elderly because some stores would be closed. He said vaccinations had made people less anxious about the pandemic, despite the new variant.

“A numbness has set in, and we are no longer overly afraid,” said Matsuzawa, who lives in Yokohama, southwest of Tokyo. “Some of us are starting to take for granted that it won’t happen to me.”

People thronged temples and shrines, most of them wearing masks. Some shrugged off the virus, dining and drinking in downtown Tokyo and flocking to shops, celebrating being freed from recent virus restrictions.

People wearing face masks to protect against the coronavirus walk at a street for their yearend shopping in Tokyo December 31, 2021. (AP Photo/Koji Sasahara)

In South Korea’s capital, Seoul, the annual New Year’s Eve bell-ringing ceremony was canceled for the second straight year due to a surge in cases, and a pre-recorded video was instead broadcast online and on television.

South Korean authorities also closed many beaches and other tourist attractions along the east coast, which usually swarm with people hoping to catch the year’s first sunrise, and extended tough distancing rules for another two weeks.

In India, millions of people rang in the new year from their homes, with nighttime curfews and other restrictions taking the fizz out of celebrations in New Delhi, Mumbai and other large cities. Authorities have imposed restrictions to keep revelers away from restaurants, hotels, beaches and bars amid a surge in cases fueled by Omicron.

Many Indonesians were also forgoing their usual festivities for a quieter evening at home, after the government banned many New Year’s Eve celebrations.

In Hong Kong, a New Year’s Eve concert featuring local celebrities including boy band Mirror was the first big New Year’s Eve event since 2018, after events were canceled in 2019 due to political strife and last year because of the pandemic.

In mainland China, the Shanghai government canceled an annual light show along the Huangpu River that usually draws hundreds of thousands of spectators. There were no plans for public festivities in Beijing, where popular temples have been closed or had limited access since mid-December.

Popular temples in the eastern Chinese cities of Nanjing, Hangzhou and other major cities canceled traditional New Year’s Eve “lucky bell-ringing” ceremonies and asked the public to stay away.

Attendees at an event that coincided with the New Year Eve cheer as fake snow from a foam machine is blown overhead in Beijing, China, December 31, 2021. (AP Photo/Ng Han Guan)

In the Philippines, a powerful typhoon two weeks ago wiped out basic necessities for tens of thousands of people ahead of New Year’s Eve. More than 400 were killed by Typhoon Rai and at least 82 remain missing.

Leahmer Singson, a 17-year-old mother, lost her home to a fire last month, and then the typhoon blew away her temporary wooden shack in Cebu city. She will welcome the new year with her husband, who works in a glass and aluminum factory, and her 1-year-old baby in a ramshackle tent in a clearing where hundreds of other families erected small tents from debris, rice sacks and tarpaulins.

Asked what she wants for the new year, Singson had a simple wish: “I hope we won’t get sick.”

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