AUCKLAND: Fireworks went off as New Zealand became the first major country to cross the invisible threshold and enter 2021, after a year in which it became a rare success story during the global coronavirus pandemic

AUCKLAND, New Zealand–January 1st, 2021–Happy muted New Year! New Zealand and the Pacific Islands are first to ring in 2021 as countries around the world prepare to send off a year blighted by the global pandemic with pared-down celebrations

With virtual parties, socially-distanced firework displays and the hope of better days to come, the world has begun bidding good riddance to the year of the pandemic today and greeting the dawn of 2021.

Unmourned but never to be forgotten, 2020 started passing into history in Kiribati and Samoa at 10am GMT and New Zealand at 11am – with the last Pacific islands set to cross the invisible threshold 25 hours later.

In New Zealand and Australia, two of the first countries to reach midnight and also two of the most successful in fending off the worst of Covid-19, life was normal enough for some crowds of revellers to gather on waterfronts in Auckland and Sydney to mark the new year.

But for most of the world’s seven billion people, a grinding year is ending with typically scaled-back festivities, with fireworks, pyre burnings and live performances set to be watched from home or cancelled altogether.

From France to Latvia to Brazil, police and military personnel are being deployed to enforce night-time curfews and bans on large gatherings are enforced, with much of the world still in lockdown and the vaccine race only just beginning.

Although the Pacific islands were spared the worst ravages of the pandemic, border restrictions, curfews and lockdowns meant this New Year’s Eve was still a little different.

At the palm-fringed Taumeasina resort in Samoa, manager Tuiataga Nathan Bucknall was pleased to be open without a limit on guest numbers, but thanks to a state of emergency stopped serving alcohol at 11 pm.

In harder-hit countries such as Italy – where shocking images of makeshift morgues and exhausted medics first awoke the world to the horror of the pandemic last spring – curfews and lockdowns are still in force.

In London, American singer-songwriter Patti Smith will ring in the New Year with a tribute to NHS workers who have died from Covid-19, projected on the screen at Piccadilly Circus and streamed on YouTube.

And in New York, the famous ball-drop in Times Square will unfold this year without the usual throngs of cheering revelers. Police will block off the area so that spectators cannot even get a glimpse.

Since it surfaced in China in late 2019, the coronavirus has infected more than 80million people and led to nearly 1.8million deaths, the majority of them in Europe and the Americas.

Although mass vaccination efforts have begun in many countries in recent weeks, offering hope that the end of the pandemic is in sight, it is likely to be months before normal life can return in most of the world.

In China, where the Lunar New Year generally takes precedence over January 1, a countdown ceremony will take place in Beijing with just a few invited guests while other planned events have been cancelled.

Hong Kong, with its British colonial history and large expatriate population, has usually seen raucous celebrations along the waterfront and in bar districts.

For the second year running, however, New Year’s Eve fireworks have been cancelled, this time over coronavirus rather than public security concerns.

In Japan, some people skipped what is customarily a chance to return to ancestral homes for the holidays, hoping to lessen health risks for extended families.

Rural restaurants saw business drop, while home deliveries of traditional New Year’s ‘good luck’ food called ‘osechi’ boomed.

Emperor Naruhito is delivering a video message instead of waving from a window with the imperial family as cheering crowds visit the palace.