- New Year's Eve feels like a deja vu, with the fast-spreading omicron variant again filing hospitals
- Australia went ahead with its celebrations despite an explosion in virus cases.
- New Zealand replaced its fireworks show in Auckland with a lights display.
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. In London, officials said as many as 1 in 15 people were infected with the virus in the week before Christmas, while hospitalizations of COVID-19 patients in the U.K. rose 44% in the last week.
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. Pakistani announced that had it achieved its goal of fully vaccinating 70 million people by the year's end.
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.
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 cancelled his New Year’s Eve tradition of visiting the life-sized manger set up in St. Peter’s Square, again to avoid a crowd.
Face masks again became mandatory Friday on the streets of Paris, a rule widely ignored among afternoon crowds that thronged the sunbathed Champs-Elysees. With nearly 50% of Paris-region intensive care beds filled by COVID-19 patients, hospitals were ordered to postpone non-essential surgeries to make more room.
Australia went ahead with its celebrations despite an explosion in virus cases. Thousands of fireworks lit up the sky over Sydney's Harbor Bridge and Opera House at midnight.
Hours before the spectacular display, Australian health authorities reported a record 32,000 new virus cases, many of them in Sydney. Because of the surge, crowds were far smaller than in pre-pandemic years, when as many as 1 million revelers would crowd inner Sydney.
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 not only the holidays but a sense of exhilaration over being freed from recent virus restrictions.
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. Officials said a pre-recorded video of this year’s bell-ringing ceremony would instead be broadcast online and on television.
South Korean authorities also planned to close many beaches and other tourist attractions along the east coast, which usually swarm with people hoping to catch the year's first sunrise. On Friday, South Korea said it will extend tough distancing rules for another two weeks.
In India, millions of people were planning to ring in the new year from their homes, with nighttime curfews and other restrictions taking the fizz out of celebrations in large cities including New Delhi and Mumbai. 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 Jakarta, fireworks displays, parades and other large gatherings were prohibited, while restaurants and malls were allowed to remain open but with curfews.
In Hong Kong, about 3,000 people planned to attend a New Year’s Eve concert featuring local celebrities including boy band Mirror. The concert will be the first big New Year’s Eve event held 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 events including an annual light show along the Huangpu River in the city center 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. The government has called on people to avoid leaving the Chinese capital if possible and requires tests for travelers arriving from areas where there are infections.
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.
But in Thailand, authorities were allowing New Year’s Eve parties and fireworks displays to continue, albeit with strict safety measures. They were hoping to slow the spread of the omicron variant while also softening the blow to the country’s battered tourism sector. New Year’s Eve prayers, which are usually held in Buddhist temples around Thailand, will be held online instead.
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. Half a million homes were damaged or destroyed.
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 coastal 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.”