World ushers in 2022 under Covid cloud

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  • Pope Francis
    Pope Francis
    Religious leader

The world ushered in 2022 with scaled-back celebrations from New York to Sydney, weighed down by restrictions aimed at slowing soaring Covid cases as Pope Francis delivered a message of peace Saturday.

The Big Apple revived its New Year's Eve ball drop in Times Square in limited form, Paris nixed its fireworks over Omicron and London's pyrotechnic display was broadcast on TV to discourage crowds.

Under sunny skies at the Vatican on New Year's Day, the head of the world's 1.3 billion Catholics implored the faithful to commit to ending war and violence.

"Getting depressed or complaining is useless. We need to roll up our sleeves to build peace," the 85-year-old pontiff told crowds gathered in Saint Peter's Square.

The past 12 months saw a new US president in Joe Biden and the world's first spectator-free Olympics, while in Afghanistan the Taliban recaptured Kabul and authoritarianism crushed dreams of democracy in Sudan and Hong Kong.

But the pandemic -- in which more than 5.4 million people have died and now entering its third year -- still dominated.

Countless more have been sickened or subjected to lockdowns and virus tests since it was first reported in central China in December 2019.

The year 2021 started with hope as life-saving vaccines reached around 60 percent of the world's population, although many of the poor still had limited access while others refused to receive a shot.

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.

- To party, or not? -

In Britain, France, the United States and even Australia -- long a refuge -- Omicron is driving record numbers of new infections.

As parties at midnight gave way to traditional New Year Day dips after daybreak, unseasonably warm weather in Rome made the plunge into the chilly Tiber River less intimidating.

In north-eastern England, women donned fancy dress as they paddled in the North Sea, while revellers divided into the surf on the outskirts of Portugal's capital Lisbon.

Celebrations the night before, from Seoul to San Francisco were either curtailed or canceled in the face of the infection surge.

New York's annual New Year's Eve ball drop -- cancelled last year -- was scaled-down, welcoming fewer revelers than in previous years, with only about 15,000 people -- all required to show proof of vaccination -- allowed in.

"This is a dream of ours. This is one of our bucket lists to see the ball drop on New Year's, and we got vaccinated because of this," said Chroni Stokes, who traveled all the way from Memphis, Tennessee.

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

Dubai went ahead with its celebrations undeterred, with 36 firework displays at 29 locations.

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

- Tragedy in India -

Police officers patrolled the Champs-Elysees in Paris, which was 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. Across France, 874 cars were torched, a ritual in deprived suburbs, albeit a fall on the 1,316 that were vandalised in 2019.

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

With tourists still unable to enter 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.

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

A new-year tragedy struck in India, where at least 12 people died and 13 were injured in a stampede at a religious shrine early Saturday as pilgrims gathered to offer new year prayers, officials said.

In Rio, celebrations on Copacabana Beach went ahead in a scaled-back format, although crowds still arrived at the traditional party spot.

After last year's festivities were canceled due to Covid, there was a ban on musical performances, traffic and public transport.

- 'Kiss and cuddle' -

"I was expecting many more people, and stress, but it's calm, I like it," said Colombian neuroscientist Alejandra Luna, 28, whose hope for 2022 is to "kiss and cuddle without thinking much about it".

In Mexico City, authorities canceled a number of mass outdoor events, including a music concert.

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 the 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.

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

Hope remains that 2022 may bring a new, less deadly phase of the pandemic.

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

"Everyone in the world needs a big change."

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