Omicron’s New Year’s cocktail: Sorrow, fear, hope for 2022

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Grief for the dead and the dying, fears of more infections to come and hopes for an end to the coronavirus pandemic were the – again – bittersweet cocktail with which the world breathed a good 2021 and started 2022.

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New Year’s Eve, which was celebrated globally with a free-spirited wildness, instead felt like a case of deja vu, with fast-spreading Omicron versions filling hospitals again.

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“All we need is Anand,” said 53-year-old Karen Page, who was one of the fed-up guys out in London. “We’ve been around for so long now.”

The mostly silent New Year’s Eve celebrations around the world marked the start of another calendar year framed by the global pandemic. More than 285 million people have been infected with the coronavirus worldwide and more than 5 million have died since the end of 2019.

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In Paris, authorities canceled fireworks amid rising infections and essentially resumed outdoors wearing masks, an obligation that most people ticked off on the Champs-lysées in about the last hours of 2021.

In Berlin, police urged people not to gather near the Brandenburg Gate, where a concert was staged without a live audience. In Madrid, authorities only allowed 7,000 people into the city’s Puerta del Sol downtown square, a venue that has traditionally hosted around 20,000 revelers.

In the United States, officials took a mixed approach to the year-end carnival: drawing an audience to a countdown concert in Los Angeles, moving it back to New York, still ahead at full speed in Las Vegas. Growing up, where thousands came for the performance and the fireworks display on the strip that started late due to strong winds.

President Joe Biden noted the loss and uncertainty caused by the pandemic but said: “We are determined. We’re doing fine.”

“Back to work. Back to school. Back to happiness,” Biden said in a video posted on Twitter. “That’s how we’ve made it through this year. And how will we embrace the next. Together.”

In New York, officials vaccinated and allowed just 15,000 people to be vaccinated and masked inside the perimeter around Times Square, a piece of the 1 million usually squeezed to watch the famous ball. Outgoing Mayor Bill de Blasio defended the event, saying people need to see that New York is open for business.

Yet as of Thursday, rapper LL Cool J was out of a New York telecast after a positive COVID-19 test and restaurant owners struggled to stay open throughout the holiday season with staff shortages and Omicron cancellations.

“I’m really scared for my industry,” said New York restaurant writer David Rabin, who saw reservations and party bookings disappear this month. “No one earned any money in December. The fact that they may have had a good night tonight has no effect.”

Airlines also struggled as the year drew to a close, with thousands of flights canceled among flight crew and other personnel and bad weather due to the virus.

The 2021 pandemic game-changer – vaccinations – continues to accelerate. Pakistan said it had fully vaccinated 70 million of its 220 million people this year and Britain said it had met its target of providing vaccine booster shots to all adults by Friday.

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

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

Elsewhere, the place many people chose to celebrate the New Year was the same place they became overly familiar with during the lockdown: their homes.

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

“The feeling of being lost in the world has increased during the pandemic,” Francis told believers at St. Peter’s Basilica.

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

In London, the usual fireworks display, which would have attracted thousands of people to the city center and the banks of the Thames, was replaced by a light and drone show broadcast on television. The location details about the spectacle were kept secret in advance to avoid crowd gathering.

“The past two years have been very difficult for so many people, so many have suffered and there is a point when we need to come together,” said 22-year-old special needs teacher Mira Luluk.

France’s unprecedented 232,200 new cases on Friday marked its third day running above the 200,000 mark. Britain was far behind with 189,846 new cases, also a record. In London, officials said 1 in 15 people had been infected with the virus the week before Christmas. Hospitalizations of COVID-19 patients in the UK rose 68% in the past week to a February high.

In Brazil, Rio de Janeiro’s Copacabana beach welcomed a small crowd of a few thousand for 16-minute fireworks. The celebration of Rio’s New Year usually brings more than 2 million people to Copacabana Beach. There was no celebration in 2020 due to the pandemic. This year there was music over loudspeakers, but no live concerts like previous editions.

Yet New Year’s Eve celebrations began in Belgrade, the capital of Serbia, where, unlike anywhere else in Europe, mass gatherings were allowed despite fears of an Omicron version. A medical expert predicted that Serbia would see thousands of new COVID-19 infections after the holidays.

At Expo 2020. “If you don’t celebrate, life will pass you by,” she said. “I am healthy and I took two (vaccine) doses. We just have to enjoy.”

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

In Japan, author Naoki Matsuzawa said he would spend the next few days cooking and serving food to the elderly as some stores would remain closed. He said vaccination has made people less concerned about the pandemic, despite the new version.

“There has been a numbness, and we are no longer overly frightened,” said Matsuzawa, who lives in Yokohama, southwest of Tokyo. “Some of us are beginning to believe that this will not happen to me.”

South Korean authorities closed many beaches and other tourist attractions along the east coast, which usually flock to people in hopes of catching the year’s first sunrise.

In India, millions of people celebrated the New Year from their homes, with night curfews and other restrictions looming large in New Delhi, Mumbai and other major cities.

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

A powerful storm that struck the Philippines two weeks ago provided basic needs for thousands of people ahead of New Year’s Eve. More than 400 were killed by Typhoon Rai and at least 82 are missing.

Lehmar Singson, a 17-year-old mother, lost her home to a fire last month, and then a typhoon blew up her makeshift wooden shack in Cebu City. She will welcome the new year with her husband, who works at a glass and aluminum factory, and their 1-year-old in a ramshackle tent in a clearing where hundreds of other families have covered small pieces of rubble, rice sacks and tarpaulins. Tents have been built.

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

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