In Much of Asia, 2020 Ends With a Whimper

Seoul saw a much-subdued New Year's celebration this year | Image Credit: Associated Press
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In many cities around the world, fireworks illuminated empty streets as people bid a subdued ‘good riddance’ to 2020.

As with every year, Sydney was the world’s first major city to ring in the new year. But as 2020 drew to a close, this was a very different sort of celebration.

Fireworks still spectacularly lit up the skies over the Sydney Opera House and Harbour Bridge, but instead of the usual million-plus New Year’s revelers thronging the streets below, the area around Sydney’s famed harbour was largely deserted.

Fireworks illuminate Sydney Harbour | Image Credit: Associated Press

New South Wales Premier Gladys Berejiklian had already banned most people from going into Sydney’s downtown area Thursday night, with permits being required (often along with restaurant reservations) for nearly all entry into the city centre.

“We don’t want to create any super-spreading events on New Year’s Eve,” she commented earlier in the week, noting that this year, watching the fireworks from home was the most responsible way to welcome 2021.

Meanwhile, Melbourne, Australia’s second-most populous city, cancelled its fireworks display altogether.

In Beijing, the usual light show from the top of the city’s highest TV tower was absent, while Shanghai figured it was as good a year as any to try out a ‘fake fireworks’ display utilising some 2,000 aerial drones rather than actual pyrotechnics.

An ‘artificial’ fireworks display in Shanghai using 2,000 drones | Image Credit: AV Magazine

Elsewhere in the world, St Peter’s in Rome was virtually empty, while London’s Trafalgar Square, Moscow’s Red Square, Madrid’s Puerta del Sol, and New York’s Times Square — typically centres of celebration for New Year’s Eve — were all barricaded and empty.

In Tokyo, as new Covid infections hit a record high of more than 1,300 on Thursday, nearly all New Year’s Eve celebrations were either pared back considerably or scrubbed altogether. Japanese Prime Minister Yoshihide Suga urged residents to celebrate the countdown at home and avoid nonessential trips.

Emperor Naruhito, meanwhile, delivered a streaming video message for the new year, instead of waving to cheering crowds from a window at the palace, as is the usual custom.

Some cities went ahead with fireworks shows, albeit over largely crowd-free streets and plazas, but in places like Kuala Lumpur, Singapore, and Seoul, the fireworks displays were cancelled. In KLCC Park, police on motorcycles slowly rode through the popular park, dispersing would-be partiers on a night that saw a record-high 2,525 new Covid-19 cases logged in Malaysia.

Usually a scene of stellar fireworks displays, as in 2019, KLCC Park was much more sedate this year | Image Credit: Travel Triangle

Hong Kong normally sees joyous celebrations along the waterfront and in the city’s bar districts. But times have changed, and for the second year in a row, New Year’s Eve fireworks were cancelled. Last year, it was related to public safety and security concerns; this year, however, it was necessitated by the pandemic.

Throughout Russia, public events and large gatherings were cancelled, though traditional fireworks still took place in Moscow’s Red Square, televised to Russians ringing in the new year at home.

Turkey, for its own part, declared a four-day full lockdown beginning on New Year’s Eve. A number of European cities enacted curfews or lockdowns, as well.

A woman sells 2021 merchandise on an uncrowded street in Bangkok | Image Credit: Reuters

The end of 2020, like much of the year, was anything but normal. With more than 1.7 million people dead and over 82 million infected around the world since last New Year’s Eve, a challenging year ended in a manner unlike any other in recent memory.

German Chancellor Angela Merkel, in her 16th New Year’s Eve address, made a point of addressing a world that had been transformed and humbled, yet was finding new hope in the rollout of effective vaccines, saying, “I think I am not exaggerating when I say, never in the last 15 years have we found the old year so heavy,” she said. “And never have we, despite all the worries and some scepticism, looked forward to the new one with so much hope.”

It wasn’t all subdued, though. In scenes sure to rankle some people who were spending their own New Year’s Eve hunkered down at home, the city of Wuhan, China, where the global pandemic originated a year ago, saw huge crowds taking to the streets to celebrate and release balloons at the stroke of midnight.

In Pyongyang, North Korea, a celebration was staged in the city’s main square, attracting a substantial face mask-wearing crowd to enjoy the music and fireworks.

People brave the cold in Kim Il Sung Square in Pyongyang | Image Credit: Associated Press

But in many cities, from Seoul to London, from Hong Kong to New York, it was a notably subdued send-off to a year most of us are happy to see end.

Here’s hoping for a much-improved 2021.

Fireworks explode over the Acropolis hill in Athens | Image Credit: Associated Press

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