New Year’s revelries from Asia to Middle East muted by coronavirus

Fireworks explode from the Burj Khalifa, the tallest building in the world, during New Year's Eve celebrations in Dubai, UAE, on Dec. 31, 2020. (REUTERS)
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Updated 01 January 2021
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New Year’s revelries from Asia to Middle East muted by coronavirus

  • Pandemic restrictions on open air gatherings saw people turning to made-for-TV fireworks displays
  • In many European countries, authorities warned they were ready to clamp down on revelers breaching public health rules

This New Year’s Eve was celebrated like no other in most of the world, with many bidding farewell to a year they’d prefer to forget.
From the South Pacific to New York City, pandemic restrictions on open air gatherings saw people turning to made-for-TV fireworks displays or packing it in early since they could not toast the end of 2020 in the presence of friends or carousing strangers.
As midnight rolled from Asia to the Middle East, Europe, Africa and the Americas, the New Year’s experience mirrored national responses to the virus itself. Some countries and cities canceled or scaled back their festivities, while others without active outbreaks carried on like any other year.
Australia was among the first to ring in 2021. In past years, 1 million people crowded Sydney’s harbor to watch fireworks. This time, most watched on television as authorities urged residents to stay home to see the seven minutes of pyrotechnics that lit up the Sydney Harbor Bridge and its surroundings.




Singer Machine Gun Kelly performs in Times Square during New Year's Eve celebrations on Dec. 31, 2020 in New York City. (AFP / POOL / Gary Hershorn)

In New York’s Times Square, the ball was set to drop like always, but police fenced off the site synonymous with New Year’s Eve to prevent crowds of any size from gathering.
Another of the world’s most popular places to be on December 31, Dubai in the United Arab Emirates, pressed ahead with its revelry despite a surge of infections. Images of masked health care workers briefly lit up Burj Khalifa, the world’s tallest tower, before fireworks exploded in the sky over the building. Tens of thousands of people flooded the streets and squares marked out for social distancing were largely ignored.
Still, the pandemic robbed the night of its freewheeling spirit. Authorities implemented a raft of anti-virus measures to control rowdy crowds in downtown Dubai. At luxury bars and restaurants, music blared and people drank, but dancing was strictly prohibited.
South Africans were urged to cancel parties and light candles to honor health workers and people who have died in the COVID-19 pandemic.
In many European countries, authorities warned they were ready to clamp down on revelers breaching public health rules, including nightly curfews in France, Italy, Turkey, Latvia, the Czech Republic, and Greece.
“No one will be on the streets after 10 p.m. (Athens) will be a dead city to make sure no more restrictions are imposed,” said Greece’s public order minister, Michalis Chrisohoidis.
France’s government flooded the streets with 100,000 law enforcement officers to enforce the nationwide curfew.
A few families gathered in Madrid’s sunny central Puerta de Sol square to listen to the rehearsal of the traditional ringing of the bells that is held at midnight. They followed the Spanish custom of eating 12 grapes with each stroke of the bells before police cleared the area that normally hosts thousands of revelers.




Lights are seen over the River Nile in the Egyptian capital Cairo during New Year's Eve celebrations on December 31, 2020. (AFP / Khaled Desouki)

“That’s it, life goes on. Despite what happened we have to celebrate,” said Cesar Pulido, 32, who celebrated in Madrid. “We have to eat the 12 grapes in order to ask 12 wishes like health, love, money, everything and good vibes.”
As the clock struck midnight, fireworks erupted over Moscow’s Red Square and the Acropolis in Athens, but the explosions echoed across largely empty streets as people obeyed orders to stay home.
From Berlin to Brussels, normally raucous celebrations were muted by the pandemic.
Even the British government, keen to celebrate the UK’s definitive split from the EU, ran ads imploring the public to “see in the New Year safely at home” amid a record number of newly confirmed cases. London’s annual New Year’s Eve fireworks display was canceled, but an unannounced display was broadcast before midnight, with tributes to health care workers, a reference to the Black Lives Matter movement and even a voice saying “you’re on mute” in reference to a bugbear of virtual work meetings.
In Scotland, residents normally mark the new year with parties and “first footing,” where a home’s first visitor of the year comes bearing gifts. The tradition is among the list of activities the government warned against.
“No gatherings, no house parties, no first-footing. Instead, we should bring in 2021 in our own homes with just our own households,” Scotland’s First Minister Nicola Sturgeon said.
Many around the world looked toward 2021 with hope, partly due to the arrival of vaccines that offer a chance of beating the pandemic.
“Although this was a very difficult year, a year of many losses, I’m grateful to be safe, to follow the rules, to do my part,” said Marilia Rafael, 33, who celebrated in Portugal, “and would like to ask that the next year may be better for all of us, may it be a year of hope, peace and love.”




Police officers stop a car in Piazza Venezia, usually a popular spot for New Year's Eve celebrations, in Rome,on Jan. 1, 2020. (AP Photo/Andrew Medichini)

More than 1.8 million deaths worldwide have been linked to the coronavirus since the start of the pandemic.
Some leaders, such as German Chancellor Angela Merkel, used their New Year’s address to thank citizens for enduring hardship during the lockdown and criticize those who defied the rules. Others, like Italy’s President Sergio Mattarella, flew the flag for science, urging citizens to discard their fears about getting immunized against COVID-19.
“Faced with an illness so highly contagious, which causes so many deaths, it’s necessary to protect one’s own health and it’s dutiful to protect those of the others – family members, friends, colleagues,’’’ said Mattarella, 79.
In Brazil’s Rio de Janeiro, where official fireworks and celebrations also were canceled to limit the rapid spread of the virus, police officers braced for what promised to be a long night.
Rio officials decided to seal off Copacabana, where millions of people dressed in white usually gather on the beach to marvel at fireworks and attend large concerts. This year, between 8 p.m. and 6 a.m. on Jan. 1, only local residents will be able to access the city’s iconic shore, authorities said.
In South Korea, Seoul’s city government canceled its annual New Year’s Eve bell-ringing ceremony in the Jongno neighborhood for the first time since the event was first held in 1953, months after the end of the Korean War.
New Zealand, which is two hours ahead of Sydney, and several of its South Pacific island neighbors that also have no active COVID-19 cases held their usual New Year’s activities.
In Chinese societies, the virus ensured more muted celebrations of the solar New Year, which is less widely observed than the Lunar New Year that in 2021 will fall in February. Initial reports about a mystery respiratory illness sickening people in the Chinese city of Wuhan emerged exactly a year ago.
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Investigation of Russian hack on London hospitals may take weeks amid worries over online data dump

Updated 7 sec ago
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Investigation of Russian hack on London hospitals may take weeks amid worries over online data dump

  • Hundreds of operations and appointments are still being canceled more than two weeks after the June 3 attack on NHS provider Synnovis, which provides pathology services primarily in southeast London
LONDON: An investigation into a ransomware attack earlier this month on London hospitals by the Russian group Qilin could take weeks to complete, the country’s state-run National Health Service said Friday, as concerns grow over a reported data dump of patient records.
Hundreds of operations and appointments are still being canceled more than two weeks after the June 3 attack on NHS provider Synnovis, which provides pathology services primarily in southeast London.
The attack affected King’s College and Guy’s and St. Thomas’ hospital trusts, which run several south London hospitals, as well as clinics and doctors’ practices across a swath of the city. A memo to staff called it a “critical incident” and said it had a “major impact” on services, particularly blood transfusions.
NHS England said Friday that it has been “made aware” that data connected to the attack have been published online. According to the BBC, Qilin shared almost 400GB of data, including patient names, dates of birth and descriptions of blood tests, on their darknet site and Telegram channel.
“The National Crime Agency and National Cyber Security Center are working to verify the data included in the published files as quickly as possible,” NHS England said in a statement. “These files are not simple uploads and so investigations of this nature are highly complex and can take weeks if not longer to complete.”
According to Saturday’s edition of the Guardian newspaper, records covering 300 million patient interactions, including the results of blood tests for HIV and cancer, were stolen during the attack.
A website and helpline has been set up for patients affected.
“We understand the distress this will cause patients who have to re-test,” NHS England said.
The National Crime Agency has confirmed that it is leading the criminal investigation but said it is unable to comment further.
Ransomware involves criminals paralyzing computer systems with malware, then demanding money to release them. Ransomware is the costliest and most disruptive form of cybercrime, affecting local governments, court systems, hospitals and schools as well as businesses. It is difficult to combat as most gangs are based in former Soviet states and out of reach of Western justice.
Britain’s state-funded health system has been hit before, including during a 2017 ransomware attack that froze computers at hospitals across the country, closing down wards, shutting emergency rooms and bringing treatment to a halt.
Qilin, also known as Agenda, advertises on dark web cybercrime forums and leases malware to affiliates who use it to conduct attacks for a percentage of ransom payments, said Louise Ferrett of Searchlight Cyber, a threat intelligence company. The group has listed more than 100 victims.

BRICS countries launch joint tourism roadmap at Moscow forum

Updated 17 min 31 sec ago
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BRICS countries launch joint tourism roadmap at Moscow forum

  • BRICS accounts for 45 percent of world’s population, 25 percent of global economy
  • New strategy includes increased mobility between the nine countries

MOSCOW: The BRICS group of emerging-market nations has launched a roadmap to boost travel between member nations during the organization’s first tourism forum, which was held in Moscow over the weekend.

The BRICS group — an acronym for Brazil, Russia, India, China and South Africa — was formed in 2009 as an investment forum. It has since evolved into a geopolitical bloc and in January expanded to include Iran, the UAE, Ethiopia and Egypt.

The group’s leaders meet for annual summits hosted by the member holding its rotating presidency. This year’s chairmanship was taken by Russia.

Over 300 representatives of the industry gathered in Moscow for the BRICS Tourism Forum on Friday as delegates of the nine member countries announced a roadmap for joint policy and investment initiatives, which covers the development of digital tourism solutions, the BRICS green initiative for tourism, and the development of business relations in the sector, which Russian Economy Minister Maxim Reshetnikov said makes up around five percent of the group members’ economies.

“We can say that the BRICS tourism track has been formally launched as of this moment,” Reshetnikov told reporters. “The document will bolster cooperation in the tourism industry’s digitalization and in promoting and increasing tourist exchanges.”

The roadmap was welcomed by the Indian Ministry of Tourism.

“This is a great achievement, the first of its kind, and now the countries will work together in a certain manner through the roadmap,” Niraj Sharan, assistant director general at the ministry, told Arab News.

“In the future, more and more tourists will move within BRICS nations. It will be easy to go around, easing travel formalities, each country will facilitate member countries’ citizens, there will be cooperation between the hospitality sectors, and the countries will invest in each other’s firms.”

India is already offering e-visas to most of the BRICS nations.

“India is aiming at a better partnership, coordination and cohesion among all the BRICS nations — better facilities, easy movement of tourists, better exchanges for tourism sectors, tourism stakeholders, enhancing investment in each other’s countries,” Sharan said.

Amr El-Kadi, chairman of the Egyptian Tourism Promotion Authority at the Ministry of Tourism and Antiquities, said: “The BRICS Tourism Forum is significant, it’s opening up new territories. It’s a golden opportunity, where we can all work (together) within BRICS to increase intra-tourism.

“We have another major program to promote Egypt in India. We are working hard with the Indian embassy in Cairo to do a lot,” he continued. “We have a joint working team between both countries to know exactly how and where to promote tourism both ways. So, we have very ambitious plans.”

BRICS nations have a combined population of about 45 percent of the world’s inhabitants and account for some 25 percent of the global economy.

Since last year, 40 countries, including Malaysia, Thailand and Pakistan, have reportedly expressed interest in becoming members of the BRICS bloc, which aims to represent the Global South and provide an alternative model to the Western-dominated G7 — the most advanced economies comprising Germany, France, the UK, Italy, Japan, Canada, and the US.


BRICS countries launch tourism cooperation roadmap at Moscow forum

Updated 26 min 53 sec ago
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BRICS countries launch tourism cooperation roadmap at Moscow forum

  • BRICS accounts for 45 percent of the world’s population, 25 percent of the global economy
  • New roadmap includes increased mobility between the nine countries and mutual investments

MOSCOW: BRICS countries on Friday launched a tourism cooperation roadmap during the intergovernmental organization’s first tourism forum held in Moscow, with top officials calling it a “great achievement” toward easing travel formalities and boosting cooperation among the hospitality sectors of the grouping of emerging-market nations. 

The BRICS group — the acronym stands for Brazil, Russia, India, China and South Africa — was formed in 2009 as an investment forum and has since evolved into a geopolitical bloc. In January, the group expanded its membership to include Iran, the United Arab Emirates, Ethiopia and Egypt.

The group’s leaders meet for annual summits hosted by the members holding its rotating presidency. This year’s chairmanship was taken by Russia, which for the first time in the bloc’s history held a forum dedicated to tourism.

Over 300 representatives of the industry gathered in Moscow on Friday for the BRICS Tourism Forum, where delegates of the nine member countries announced a roadmap on joint policy and investment initiatives.

“We can say that the BRICS tourism track has been formally launched as of this moment,” Russian Economy Minister Maxim Reshetnikov told reporters.

“The document will bolster cooperation in the tourism industry’s digitalization and in promoting and increasing tourist exchanges.”

It included developing digital tourism solutions, a BRICS green initiative for tourism, and business relations in the sector, which Reshetnikov said contributes about five percent to the group’s member economies.

The roadmap was welcomed by the Indian Ministry of Tourism.

“This is a great achievement, first of its kind, and now the countries will work together in a certain manner or through the roadmap,” Niraj Sharan, assistant director general at the ministry, told Arab News on the sidelines of the forum.

“In the future, more and more tourists will move within BRICS nations. It will be easy to go around, easing travel formalities, each country will facilitate member countries’ citizens, there will be cooperation among the hospitality sectors, and the countries will be investing in each other’s firms.”

India is already offering e-visas to most of the BRICS nations.

“India is aiming at a better partnership, coordination and cohesion among all the BRICS nations, better facilities, easy movement of tourists, better exchanges for tourism sectors, tourism stakeholders, enhancing investment in each other’s countries,” Sharan said.

BRICS nations have a combined population of about 45 percent of the world’s inhabitants and account for some 25 percent of the global economy.

Since last year, 40 countries, including Malaysia, Thailand and Pakistan, have expressed interest in becoming members of the bloc, which tries to represent the Global South and provide an alternative model to the Western-dominated G7 — the most advanced economies comprising Germany, France, the UK, Italy, Japan, Canada and the US.

Egypt, a new member of the bloc, said the roadmap was an opportunity to benefit from linkages with some of the world’s most populous countries.

“The BRICS Tourism Forum is significant, it’s opening up to new territories ... It’s a golden opportunity, where you all have to work on the development and improvement, and work between the nations within the BRICS to increase intra-tourism,” said Amr El-Kadi, chairman of the Egyptian Tourism Promotion Authority at the Ministry of Tourism and Antiquities.

“We are having another big-scale program to promote Egypt in India. We are working hard with the Indian embassy in Cairo to do a lot. We have a joint working team between both countries to know exactly how and where and where to promote tourism both ways. So, we have very ambitious plans for us.”


Anger after fireworks trigger Greek forest fire

Updated 26 min 33 sec ago
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Anger after fireworks trigger Greek forest fire

  • Greece has recently toughened penalties for arson, with perpetrators now facing up to 20 years in prison and a fine of up to 200,000 euros

ATHENS: A forest fire on the Greek tourist island of Hydra, near Athens, was started by fireworks launched from a yacht, firefighters said Saturday, sparking widespread anger.
The fire, which started on Friday evening, has been brought under control, authorities said.
The blaze was “caused by a fireworks launched from a boat and burned the only pine forest on the island in a place that is difficult to access and has no road,” said the island’s seasonal firefighting team on Facebook.
The mayor of the island, Giorgos Koukoudakis, told public television channel ERT that he was “outraged that certain people are starting fires in such an irresponsible manner.”
The news also sparked fury on social media.
Greece has recently toughened penalties for arson, with perpetrators now facing up to 20 years in prison and a fine of up to 200,000 euros.
The country has been bracing for a particularly difficult summer as authorities warned that strong winds and high temperatures mean there was a “very high risk” of forest fires.
The Mediterranean country recorded its first heatwave of the year last week with temperatures passing more than 44 degrees Celsius (111 degrees Fahrenheit) in some locations.
Greek firefighters on Friday battled wildfires fanned by three days of fierce winds that left at least one person dead.
Last year, a fierce two-week heatwave was followed by devastating wildfires in which 20 people died.
Scientists warn that fossil fuel emissions caused by humans are worsening the length and intensity of heatwaves around the world.
Rising temperatures are leading to extended wildfire seasons and increasing the area burnt by the blazes, according to the United Nations Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change.


Italian coast guard recovers 14 more bodies of shipwreck victims off Calabria, dozens still missing

Updated 22 June 2024
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Italian coast guard recovers 14 more bodies of shipwreck victims off Calabria, dozens still missing

  • Humanitarian groups have decried the deaths as evidence of the failure of European migration policy

ROME: The Italian coast guard has recovered 14 more bodies from last week’s shipwreck in the Ionian Sea off the southern Italian coastline, bringing to 34 the number of known victims from the sinking. Dozens are still missing and presumed dead.
The bodies, recovered on Friday, were transferred to a port in Calabria. Three coast guard ships were active in the air-and-sea search, some 190 kilometers (120 miles) from shore.
Survivors reported that the motorboat had caught fire, causing it to capsize off the Italian coast overnight last Sunday, about eight days after departing from Turkiye with about 75 people from Iran, Syria and Iraq on board, according to the UN refugee agency and other UN organizations. Eleven survivors were being treated on shore.
The latest deaths bring to more than 800 people who have died or went missing and are presumed dead crossing the central Mediterranean so far this year, an average of five dead a day, the UN agencies said.
Humanitarian groups have decried the deaths as evidence of the failure of European migration policy.