Sydney (AFP), December 31 – The world prepared to usher in 2022 on Friday after another tumultuous and pandemic year, capped with new restrictions, growing cases and a slight glimmer of hope for better times to come.
The past 12 months have seen a new US president and a new album from Adele, the first spectatorless Olympics and dreams of democracy from Afghanistan to Myanmar and Hong Kong crushed by authoritarian regimes.
But it is the pandemic – now entering its third year – that has once again dominated the lives of most of humanity.
More than 5.4 million people have died since the coronavirus was first reported in central China in December 2019.
Countless more have been sickened – subjected to epidemics, lockdowns, blockages, and a spaghetti alphabet of PCR, LFT, and RAT testing.
The year 2021 has started with hope, as life-saving vaccines have been rolled out to around 60% of the world’s population, although many of its poor still have limited access, and some of its rich believe jabs are part of the ‘an ill-defined plot. .
As the year drew to a close, the emergence of the Omicron variant saw the number of new daily Covid-19 cases rise to more than one million for the first time, according to an AFP tally.
France became the latest country to announce that Omicron is now its dominant coronavirus strain on Friday.
In Britain, the United States and even Australia – long a haven from the pandemic – the significance of the variant is driving new record cases.
From Seoul to San Francisco, New Years celebrations have again been canceled or reduced as infections rise.
– To party or not? –
But in South Africa, the first country to report Omicron in November, a midnight to 4 a.m. curfew has been lifted to allow the festivities to continue.
Health officials on the spot said a drop in infections over the past week signaled the peak of the current wave had passed – especially without a significant increase in deaths.
Australia’s largest city, Sydney, has also decided to go ahead with a fireworks display that will light up the city’s harbor, despite one of the fastest growing workloads in the world.
The country’s conservative government says its decision to abandon a ‘Covid-zero’ approach in favor of ‘living with Covid’ is based on high adult vaccination rates and growing evidence that Omicron is less lethal.
Tens of thousands of revelers were expected on the Sydney foreshore, although AFP reporters said the city was quieter than usual after dark.
“I’m just trying to focus on the positive things that have happened this year, rather than dwelling on all the bad things that have happened,” said Melinda Howard, a 22-year-old medical student, who is part of an enthusiastic group but smaller than the usual crowd waiting at the Opera for the start of the show.
Dubai is planning a fireworks display at the Burj Khalifa, the tallest tower in the world, despite a multitude of infections in the United Arab Emirates.
Meanwhile, the northern emirate of Ras Al Khaimah will try to break two world records with huge fireworks.
– ‘One desire’ –
In Rio, the Copacabana Beach celebrations will take place in a scaled-down format – though crowds of revelers are still expected.
“People have only one desire, to leave their homes, to celebrate life after a pandemic that has forced everyone to lock themselves up,” said Francisco Rodrigues, Copacabana beach server, 45.
Some Brazilians are more wary, after one of the deadliest epidemics in the world which killed 618,000.
Roberta Assis, a 27-year-old lawyer, plans to spend time at a friend’s house with a small group.
“Now is not the time for big gatherings,” she said.
Authorities in Seoul are being similarly cautious, barring viewers from a traditional midnight bell that will instead be shown live on TV and a metaverse platform.
– ‘Difficult times’ –
For now, the World Health Organization has warned of hard times ahead, saying Omicron could lead to “a tsunami of cases.”
“This will continue to put immense pressure on exhausted health workers and health systems on the brink of collapse,” WHO chief Tedros Adhanom Ghebreyesus said.
Many Western leaders have been reluctant to reimpose the tight controls seen in 2020 for fear of triggering another economic downturn.
But the intermittent restrictions have always prompted frequent, vocal and sometimes violent anti-lockdown, anti-vaccine and anti-government protests.
Experts and non-experts alike hope 2022 will be remembered as a new, less deadly phase of the pandemic.
“I hope 2022 will be better for everyone,” 31-year-old party animal Oscar Ramirez said in Sydney.
“Everyone in the world needs a big change. ”