Health

Omicron dampens global New Year celebrations, fewer watch ball drop in Times Square

The
illuminated ball made of Waterford crystal panels slid down its pole at the
midnight hour in Times Square, but only 15,000 spectators were allowed into the
official viewing area instead of the usual 58,000.

A year ago,
the newly available vaccine offered hope that the COVID-19 pandemic may be
under control by the start of 2022. Instead, the sudden arrival of omicron has
brought a surge in coronavirus cases across the globe.

Worldwide
infections hit a record high over the past seven-day period, with an average of
just over a million cases detected a day between Dec 24 and 30, up some 100,000
on the previous peak posted on Wednesday, according to Reuters data. Deaths,
however, have not risen in kind, bringing hope the new variant is less lethal.

New York
City reported a record 44,000 cases on Wednesday and another 43,000 on
Thursday, leading some critics to question whether the celebrations should go
ahead at all.

But
officials decided an outdoor party of vaccinated, masked and socially distant
revellers was safe, and a better option than the virtually vacant celebration
that rung in 2021.

“I
would be lying if I said I’m not concerned,” said Sue Park, a Columbia
University student who was one of the 15,000 allowed to watch in person.
“Definitely I think it’s worth it to come and celebrate. It will just be
more meaningful to be in the crowd.”

Elsewhere
around the globe, events were scaled back or cancelled outright, such as with
the traditional fireworks over the Petronas Towers in Kuala Lumpur.

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Midnight
passed in Paris without a planned fireworks display or DJ sets, as city
officials cancelled events planned on the Champs-Elysees following the advice
of a scientific panel that declared mass gatherings would be too risky.

In the
Netherlands, where outside groupings of more than four people are banned,
police dispersed several thousand people who had defiantly gathered at
Amsterdam’s central Dam Square, ANP news agency reported.

But in
London, where a fireworks display and light show had been cancelled in October,
officials announced on Friday the spectacle would come to life on the
television screen, as Big Ben rang in the New Year for the first time since
2017 following a restoration.

BBC images
of the fireworks showed very light vehicle traffic and virtually no in-person
spectators.

Earlier,
Britain published a study of a million cases that found those with omicron were
around a third as likely to need hospitalisation as those with the previously
dominant Delta variant. The results were “in keeping with the encouraging
signs we have already seen,” said Susan Hopkins, chief medical adviser at
the UK Health Security Agency.

In the wake
of encouraging data, Cape Town abruptly lifted a curfew just in time for the
New Year, after South Africa became the first country to declare its Omicron
wave had crested – and with no huge surge in deaths.

South Africa
had first raised the alarm about the new fast-spreading coronavirus variant
racing around the world.

“I’m
just hoping that Cape Town goes back to the old Cape Town that we all knew
about,” said Michael Mchede, manager of a Hard Rock cafe by the white
sands of Camps Bay Beach, who was thrilled to get the place ready to host an
unexpected bash.

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Hours
earlier, the Australian city of Sydney also feted the New Year with something
like full swagger, as spectacular fireworks glittered in the harbour above the
Opera House.

People in
Madrid queued for hours to get into the main Puerta del Sol square where
celebrations went ahead with multiple security checkpoints, mandatory masks and
capacity at 60 percent of normal levels.

Saul
Pedrero, a 34-year old clerk, made the trip from Barcelona, which has some of
Spain’s strictest controls, including a 1 am curfew.

“It
seems like another country. Here you can do everything and nobody says
anything,” he said.

A lavish
firework display lit up the festivities, which Spaniards mark by stuffing 12
grapes into their mouths to accompany each chime of the clock striking
midnight.

In Asia,
celebrations were mostly abridged or cancelled. In South Korea, a traditional
midnight bell-ringing ceremony was cancelled for the second year, while
festivities were banned in Tokyo’s glittering Shibuya entertainment district,
and Prime Minister Fumio Kishida took to YouTube to urge people to wear masks
and limit numbers at parties.

China, where
the coronavirus first emerged in late 2019, was on high alert, with the city of
Xian under lockdown and New Year events in other cities cancelled.

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