by Helen ROWE with AFP bureaus
From Sydney Harbour Bridge to the Acropolis, fireworks burst in skies above eerily deserted landmarks as the world ushered in the New Year with muted celebrations and said good riddance to a pandemic-ridden 2020.
After a grinding year that has seen at least 1.7 million people die from Covid-19, fresh waves of infection have sparked renewed lockdowns and forced would-be revellers to extend their 2020 tradition of watching events from the sofa.
The eagerly awaited first seconds of 2021 fell on the Pacific nations of Kiribati and Samoa from 1000 GMT. The uninhabited Howland and Baker Islands will be the last to tip over into the New Year.
New Zealand, which has won plaudits for its handling of the coronavirus, followed Kiribati and Samoa, with large crowds gathered in Auckland to watch a fireworks display.
In Australia’s largest city, Sydney, fireworks lit up the glittering harbour with a dazzling display, but few spectators watched in person.
“I think everybody is looking towards 2021 as a fresh beginning and a fresh start,” Karen Roberts, among the lucky few who were allowed past checkpoints around the area, told AFP at a bar nestled under the Sydney Opera House.
– Curfews being enforced –
Some Hong Kongers, despite restrictions, ventured out to mark the start of the year, gathering on the Victoria Harbour waterfront to take selfies.
In Tokyo, where residents face the prospect of a state of emergency being imposed after infections touched new highs, people queued in face masks to offer New Year prayers.
Wuhan in China, where the virus first appeared late last year, saw thousands gather to celebrate — and Taipei also enjoyed a more traditionally upbeat celebration with crowds massing to watch fireworks.
Elsewhere, the mood was far more downbeat.
In Russia, President Vladimir Putin acknowledged in a New Year’s address that a second wave of Covid-19 was battering the nation.
“The fight against it does not stop for a minute,” he said.
Italy — where shocking images of makeshift morgues and exhausted medics awoke the world to the severity of the crisis — is on a nationwide lockdown until January 7 with a 10 pm curfew in place.
From France to Latvia and Brazil, police and — in some cases — military personnel are being deployed to make sure curfews or bans on large gatherings are enforced.
Paris and Athens both featured socially distanced gatherings, with a virtual concert and light show over Notre Dame in the French capital and fireworks over the Acropolis in Greece.
In hard-hit London, 74-year-old American singer-songwriter Patti Smith had been due to ring in the New Year with a tribute to National Health Service workers who have died from Covid-19, projected on the screen at Piccadilly Circus and streamed on YouTube.
But due to alarm at rising infections rates, the big screen projection was cancelled with the tribute viewable instead solely online.
A few dozen revellers did arrive in Parliament Square to watch Big Ben chime 11:00 pm — midnight in Brussels — marking the moment that Brexit finally became a reality, with Britain severing its turbulent half-century partnership with Europe.
Police ordered them home well before midnight, however.
– Social gathering –
A fireworks and laser show was held in Dubai at the Burj Khalifa, the world’s tallest tower, where there has been a slew of new cases. Those watching were required to wear masks and register with identifying QR barcodes.
In Beirut, still reeling from an explosion that devastated the city’s port in August, authorities were also cutting loose.
A curfew was pushed back to 3 am and bars, restaurants and night clubs allowed to reopen to host large parties.
On the banks of Lake Baikal in Siberia, where temperatures plummet to as low as -35 degrees Celsius (-31 Fahrenheit), around a dozen Russians emerged invigorated after a New Year’s Eve ice dip.
The swimmers, known in Russia as “walruses”, ran several kilometres (miles) through a snowy forest in swimsuits and festive costumes before plunging into the world’s largest freshwater lake.
“It’s invigorating. It stings a little!” Andrei Bugai told AFP.
German Chancellor Angela Merkel used her New Year greeting to warn the coronavirus crisis would extend into 2021 even if vaccines bring some hope, as police clashed with revellers near the Brandenburg gate in Berlin.
As the final hours of 2020 ticked away in the Americas, authorities in New York City blocked public access to Times Square, where thousands usually gather to watch a crystal ball drop at midnight.
A star-studded celebration will still be televised from the square with performances from the likes of Jennifer Lopez and Gloria Gaynor — but its confetti will fall onto a largely deserted pavement.
With midnight approaching, the US, the worst-hit country in the world, was also nearing 20 million recorded infections and more than 345,000 deaths.
In Brazil — which has already recorded more than 193,000 Covid-19 deaths, the second-largest number in the world after the US — Rio de Janeiro was blocking beach access to prevent the crowds of revellers who traditionally gather.
© Agence France-Presse