Coronavirus misery hung over Christmas preparations around the world on Thursday, with countless millions forced to cancel plans or limit festivities under new virus blocks.
After a terrible pandemic year that saw more than 1.7 million people die from Covid-19, a series of new outbreaks is a stark reminder that despite the release of emergency vaccines, life is unlikely to return to normal quickly.
Bethlehem, where Christians believe Jesus was born, was preparing for a Christmas unlike any other in its recent history.
The Christmas Eve Mass at the Church of the Nativity is traditionally the highlight of a holiday season that sees hundreds of thousands of visitors gather in the Palestinian city in the occupied West Bank.
The mass will be closed to the public this year and broadcast online, with only the clergy and selected individuals allowed to enter the basilica, which was sterilized on Thursday before the service.
A procession of pipers and drummers marched towards Praça da Manjedoura, watched by a masked Palestinian crowd lining the streets under a gray sky and a little rain.
“Despite the fear, Covid’s frustration, we will overcome it because Jesus was born in Bethlehem,” said the Latin Patriarch of Jerusalem, Pierbattista Pizzaballa, during the procession.
Participant Jania Shaheen, who was with her two young children and her husband in the square, said the holiday was “different this year, because we cannot pray at the Church of the Nativity”.
“We cannot get together as a family, everyone is afraid … It is good to see some people here today, but there is no one compared to last year. It is only for the people of Belém, ”she told AFP.
Elsewhere in the region, Kuwait on Thursday joined other Gulf nations in implementing a massive vaccination program against the coronavirus, while on the other side of the Atlantic, Mexico began administering jabs to medical professionals on the line facing.
– ‘Sour Year’ –
In Australia – often a rare plus for keeping the virus in check – a growing group of cases in northern Sydney has confined residents to seaside suburbs and has banned all but small family Christmas gatherings.
Jimmy Arslan, who owns two cafes at the epicenter of the city’s outbreak, said trade dropped by 75% and that his family in Canberra was forced to cancel the Christmas visit.
“It’s heartbreaking. It’s a very, very bitter end to a sour year,” the 46-year-old told AFP.
“Let’s say that we should all welcome 2021 and kick 2020 in the ass.”
In Europe, much of the continent is experiencing a bleak winter of resurgent outbreaks.
Germany was forced to cancel its famous Christmas markets and Pope Francis plans to advance the Vatican’s midnight mass by two hours to comply with Italy’s curfew rules.
In Christmas Eve messages, the pope expressed his desire to visit Lebanon, hit by the crisis, and urged South Sudan’s political leaders to continue working for peace.
– Vacation isolation –
For many, the isolation that defined last year will continue until Christmas Day and beyond – as in Belgium, where residents are limited to receiving a single visitor.
In the mostly Catholic Philippines, some are choosing to spend their holidays alone due to the risk of contracting the virus on public transport, in addition to the quarantine rules that make travel time-consuming and expensive.
“I’m ordering food, watching old movies again and talking to my family on video,” said Kim Patria, 31, who lives alone in Manila.
The British, however, were isolated from parts of the world due to the emergence of a new Covid-19 strain.
Some UK border restrictions have been temporarily relaxed for the holiday, but thousands of other European countries are still trapped in England.
“Spending Christmas at home? Forget it,” said Laurent Beghin, a French truck driver who delivered his cargo but was still in jail days later.
In the United States, more than a million people have already been vaccinated, but the country’s response to the coronavirus has remained chaotic as Donald Trump flew by helicopter from the White House lawn for the last time in his presidency.
The Republican and his wife Melania were about to vacation at their luxury resort in Mar-a-Lago, Florida, after their shocking rejection of a congressionally approved coronavirus aid package.
New Year celebrations look pessimistic around the world, with impending blockades for Scotland, Northern Ireland and Austria during the post-Christmas period, while Portugal imposed a curfew on New Year’s Eve.
For now, Sydney still plans to play in 2021 with its famous fireworks display on the Harbor Bridge, with New South Wales Premier Gladys Berejiklian promising that the seven-minute show will follow “no matter what.”
But, as in most of 2020, people are being encouraged to watch television on their sofas.
burs-arb / pjm / sw