The world welcomes the new year with low-key celebrations in the shadow of pandemics

From Sydney Harbor Bridge to the Acropolis, fireworks exploded in the sky above eerily deserted landmarks as the world began the new year with muted celebrations and said goodbye to a 2020 pandemic ride.

After a grinding year that has seen at least 1.7 million people die from Covid-19, new waves of infections have given rise to renewed lockdowns and forced future revealers to expand their 2020 tradition of watching events from the couch.

The long-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 to the new year.

New Zealand, which has won praise for its handling of coronavirus, followed Kiribati and Samoa, with large crowds gathered in Auckland to watch a fireworks display.

In Australia’s largest city, Sydney, fireworks illuminated the glittering harbor with a dazzling screen, but few spectators saw in person.

“I think everyone sees 2021 as a new beginning and a new start,” Karen Roberts, among the lucky few who got past checkpoints around the area, told AFP in a bar nestled under the Sydney Opera House.

Curfew is applied

Despite restrictions, some Hong Kongers dared to mark the beginning of the year and gathered at the Victoria Harbor Waterfront to take selfies.

In Tokyo, where residents face the prospect of a state of emergency after infections at new heights, people stood in face masks praying New Year’s prayers.

Wuhan, China, where the virus first appeared late last year, saw thousands gather to celebrate – and Taipei also enjoyed a more traditionally optimistic party with crowds gathering to watch fireworks.

Otherwise, the mood was much more depressed.

In Russia, President Vladimir Putin acknowledged in a New Year’s address that a second wave of Covid-19 hit the nation.

“The fight against it does not end in a minute,” he said.

Italy – where shocking images of temporary mortuaries and exhausted doctors woke the world up to the severity of the crisis – is on land until January 7 with a curfew in place.

From France to Latvia and Brazil, police and – in some cases – military personnel are deployed to ensure that curfews or bans on large gatherings are enforced.

Paris and Athens both presented socially distant meetings, 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 planned to call New Year’s with a tribute to National Health Service workers who have died from Covid-19, projected on screen at Piccadilly Circus and streamed on YouTube.

However, due to alarms at rising infection levels, the projection of the big screen was interrupted with the tribute, which could instead only be seen online.

A few dozen partygoers arrived in Parliament Square to watch Big Ben at 11pm – midnight in Brussels – marking the moment when Brexit finally became a reality, with Britain ending its turbulent mid-term partnership with Europe.

However, the police ordered them well before midnight.

Social gathering

A fireworks and laser show was held in Dubai at the Burj Khalifa, the world’s tallest tower, where there have been a lot of new cases. Those who watched had to wear masks and register with identifying QR barcodes.

In Beirut, which is still in turmoil following an explosion that destroyed the city’s port in August, authorities also cut loose.

A curfew was pushed back to 3 in the morning and bars, restaurants and nightclubs had to be reopened to host large parties.

On the shores of Lake Baikal in Siberia, where temperatures drop as low as -35 degrees Celsius (-31 Fahrenheit), a dozen Russians refreshed after an ice dip on New Year’s Eve.

The swimmers, known in Russia as “walruses”, ran several kilometers through a snowy forest in swimsuits and party costumes before plunging into the world’s largest freshwater lake.

“It’s refreshing. It hurts a little!” Andrei Bugai told AFP.

German Chancellor Angela Merkel used her New Year’s greeting to warn that the coronavirus crisis would last until 2021, even if vaccines give some hope, as police collided with detectives near the Brandenburg Gate in Berlin.

When the last hours of 2020 passed in America, New York City authorities blocked public access to Times Square, where thousands usually gather to watch a crystal ball drop at midnight.

A star-studded party will still be broadcast from the square with performances by Jennifer Lopez and Gloria Gaynor – but confetti falls on a largely deserted sidewalk.

As midnight approached, the United States, the worst-hit country in the world, also approached 20 million registered infections and more than 345,000 deaths.

In Brazil – which has already registered more than 193,000 deaths in Covid-19, the second largest number in the world after the United States – Rio de Janeiro blocked access to the beach to prevent the crowds from traditionally gathering.