COVID-19 Clouds World New Year Party

Here's how the world rang in the new year.

PARIS --- The world ushered in 2022 on Friday with scaled-back celebrations due to new restrictions aimed at slowing soaring COVID-19 cases -- although hope remained for a better new year.

The past 12 months saw a new U.S. president and a fresh Adele album, the first spectator-free Olympics, and dreams of democracy from Afghanistan to Sudan and Hong Kong crushed by authoritarian regimes.

But the pandemic -- now entering its third year -- still dominated life around the globe.

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 or subjected to outbreaks, lockdowns and a slew of virus tests.

The year 2021 started with hope as life-saving vaccines were rolled out to around 60% of the world's population, although many of its poor still have limited access and some of its rich falsely believe the jabs are part of some ill-defined plot.

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As the year drew to a close, the emergence of the Omicron variant pushed the number of daily new COVID-19 cases past one million for the first time, according to an AFP tally.

France on Friday became the latest country to announce Omicron was now its dominant coronavirus strain.

In Britain, the United States and even Australia -- long a refuge from the pandemic -- the variant's prominence is driving record new cases.

To party, or not? 

From Seoul to San Francisco, celebrations were again cancelled or curtailed in the face of the surge in infections.

About 7,000 people in Madrid's Puerta del Sol -- half the usual capacity due to COVID-19 restrictions -- rang in the new year by eating grapes, one for each time the clock chimed up to 12.

The glitzy Gulf city state of Dubai went ahead with its celebrations despite the surge in infections, with 36 firework displays at 29 locations.

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But authorities warned they would fine anyone in attendance not wearing a protective mask.

Police officers patrolled the Champs-Elysees in Paris, lit with glittering red lights and festooned with "2022" balloons, also on the lookout for people without masks.

Most people were simply asked to wear one, but some who argued were fined.

"It is constraining to put on the mask... but it's no problem" to follow the rule, said Antoine Pham, smiling. The 38-year-old and his partner came from Belgium to Paris for the evening.

In Sydney, which normally bills itself as the "New Year's Eve capital of the world", the vast harbour where people gathered to watch the city's fireworks was notably uncrowded.

With tourists still unable to enter the country and many residents fearful of the rapid spread of Omicron, tens of thousands were estimated to have attended, rather than the usual one million-plus.

Still, the city saw New Year's Eve in with a bang -- igniting six tonnes of technicoloured fireworks that lit up the Opera House and floating barges.

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"I'm just trying to focus on the positive things that happened this year," 22-year-old medical student Melinda Howard told AFP ahead of the show.

In Tunis, authorities cited the "rise in cases" of coronavirus for the last-minute cancellation of festivities.

In contrast, South Africa -- the first country to report Omicron back in November -- lifted a curfew late Thursday to allow festivities to go ahead.

Health officials said that a dip in infections in the past week indicated the peak of the current wave had passed -- crucially without a significant increase in deaths.

'Only one desire'

In Rio, celebrations on Copacabana Beach will go ahead in a scaled back format -- though crowds of revellers are still expected at the traditional party spot.

But in Mexico City, authorities canceled a number of planned mass outdoor events, including a music concert on one of the capital's main boulevards, following an increase in coronavirus cases.

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"Health comes first and the cancellations are sending a kind of message that this is serious," Victor Arturo Madrid, a 59-year-old teacher, told AFP.

In the Netherlands, authorities banned fireworks for a second year in a row in an effort to prevent firework-related injuries putting additional strain on health services stretched by COVID-19.

But a 12-year-old child was killed and another seriously injured while apparently watching an adult set off fireworks, police said.

Trying times

The World Health Organization has warned of trying times ahead, saying Omicron could lead to "a tsunami of cases".

Many Western leaders have been hesitant to reimpose strict controls seen in 2020, for fear of sparking a new economic downturn.

But on-again-off-again restrictions have still prompted frequent, vocal and occasionally violent anti-lockdown, anti-vaccine and anti-government protests.

U.S. President Joe Biden urged unity for the new year in a video message, during which he also praised "extraordinary" Americans.

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"As we head into 2022, I want folks to remember: There's not a single thing America cannot do when we do it together," he said on Twitter alongside the video.

Experts and non-experts alike hope that 2022 may be remembered as a new, less deadly phase of the pandemic.

"Hopefully 2022 is going to be better for everyone," said 31-year-old reveller Oscar Ramirez in Sydney.

"Everyone in the world needs a big change."


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