World Readies For Lockdown Christmas

Catholic devotees attend a Christmas eve mass maintaining social distancing to prevent the spread of the COVID-19 coronavirus, outside the Quiapo church in Manila on 24 December, 2020. (AFP Photo)

Coronavirus misery hung over Christmas preparations worldwide on Thursday, with countless millions forced to cancel plans or limit festivities under fresh virus lockdowns.

After a grinding pandemic year that has seen more than 1.7 million people die from COVID-19, a slew of new outbreaks is a stark reminder that despite emergency vaccine roll-outs, life is unlikely to return to normal quickly.

Bethlehem, where Christians believe Jesus was born, was preparing for a Christmas unlike any 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 flock to the Palestinian city in the occupied West Bank.

The mass will be closed to the public this year and broadcast online, with only clergy and select individuals allowed inside the basilica, which was sterilised earlier Thursday ahead of the service.

A procession of bagpipers and drummers marched towards Manger Square, watched by a mostly-masked Palestinian crowd that lined the streets under grey skies and a smattering of rain.

"Despite the fear, the frustration of COVID, we will overcome because Jesus is born in Bethlehem," said the Latin Patriarch of Jerusalem, Pierbattista Pizzaballa, during the procession.

Attendee Jania Shaheen, who was with her two small children and husband in the square, said the holiday was "different this year, because we can't pray at the Nativity Church".

"We can't gather as a family, everybody 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 Bethlehem," she said. 

Elsewhere in the region, Kuwait on Thursday joined other Gulf nations in rolling out a mass coronavirus vaccination programme, while across the Atlantic, Mexico started administering jabs to frontline medical workers.

'Sour Year'

In Australia – often a rare bright spot in keeping the virus in check – a growing cluster of cases in northern Sydney has confined residents to seaside suburbs and prompted a ban on all but the smallest Christmas family gatherings.

Jimmy Arslan, who owns two cafes at the epicentre of the city's outbreak, said trade was down 75 percent and his Canberra-based family had been forced to cancel their Christmas visit.

"It's heart-breaking. It's a very, very sour ending for a sour year," the 46-year-old said.

"Let's just say we all should welcome 2021 and kick 2020 in its arse."

In Europe, much of the continent is enduring a dark winter of resurgent outbreaks. 

Germany has been forced to cancel its famous Christmas markets and Pope Francis plans to bring the Vatican's Christmas midnight mass forward by two hours to meet Italy's curfew rules.

In Christmas Eve messages, the Pope expressed his desire to visit crisis-hit Lebanon and urged political leaders in South Sudan to continue working for peace.

Holiday Isolation

For many, the isolation that has defined the past year will continue into Christmas Day and beyond –such as in Belgium, where residents are largely limited to welcoming a single visitor. 

In the Catholic-majority Philippines, some are choosing to spend the holidays alone because of the risk of catching the virus on public transport, as well as quarantine rules making travelling time-consuming and expensive.

"I am ordering food in, re-watching old movies, and catching up with my family by video," said Kim Patria, 31, who lives alone in Manila.

Britons, meanwhile, were cut off from swathes of the world, due to the emergence of a new COVID-19 strain.

Some United Kingdom (UK) border restrictions have been temporarily relaxed for the holidays, but thousands from other European countries are still stranded in England.

"Home for Christmas? Forget it," said Laurent Beghin, a French truck driver who delivered his cargo but was still stuck days later.

In the United States (US), more than one million people have now been vaccinated, but the country's coronavirus response remained chaotic as Donald Trump helicoptered off the White House lawn for one of the last times in his presidency.

The Republican and his wife Melania were bound for a vacation at his glitzy Mar-a-Lago resort in Florida, after his shock rejection of a massive coronavirus relief package passed by Congress.

New Year's celebrations are looking downbeat globally, with lockdowns looming for Scotland, Northern Ireland and Austria through the post-Christmas period, while Portugal has imposed a New Year's Eve curfew.

For now, Sydney still plans to ring in 2021 with its famous Harbour Bridge fireworks display, with New South Wales state Premier Gladys Berejiklian pledging the seven-minute spectacle will go ahead "no matter what".

But as with most of 2020, people are being encouraged to watch on television from their sofas. - AFP