Around the globe, people who held on in hopes that 2021 would banish a year of horror are struggling with the reality that the hardest challenges may lie ahead.
ROME — At midnight on New Year’s Eve, Stefania Giardoni popped a bottle of prosecco and bid good riddance to 2020, when she was hospitalized for months with the coronavirus and lost her job. As the Roman sky erupted in fireworks, she made no wish — “because last time we made wishes we had this damned pandemic.”
But 2021 brought her more bad news anyway. She can’t get a doctor’s appointment for her joint pain because hospitals are again packed with Covid patients. Lockdowns and lack of business forced her son to shutter his shop for good. Bank officials have come seeking unpaid loans. “The New Year is already a tragedy,” she said.
People around the world counted down to the end of 2020 with relish, pegging their hopes on the idea that the New Year would bring vaccines and something that felt like normalcy. But the coronavirus keeps no calendar. It has kept doing what it does: spreading, killing, sowing grief.
The bad news rolled in during the first days of 2021, including about a more-easily spread variant of the coronavirus that has sent Britain into a desperate lockdown and put the world on notice that tougher times could be ahead. More than ever, hope is riding on vaccine rollouts that have been fumbled and slowed around the world.
But it’s not just the realization that the vaccines aren’t an instant panacea that has been such a gut punch. It’s that life is still upended everywhere.
Customs have been disrupted and major life moments skipped. Political polarization has festered and made an all-or-nothing ideological banner out of something as simple as a surgical mask. Modern presumptions about living in a post-plague age have been shattered. Weekdays and weekends, vacation days and sick days, are distinctions without a difference. The randomness of death that once seemed relegated to war zones is now everywhere.
The New Year doesn’t look, or feel, so different.
“It’s OK to be upset and feel down right now,” Joe Wicks, a British fitness instructor whose online sessions last year drew millions of views, said as he broke down in a Monday night video reacting to England’s new restrictions. He talked about the importance of maintaining physical, and mental, health in the face of despair. “And it’s OK to not be this really strong person all the time. The most important thing is to chat to people, communicate.”
The famed English motto “Keep Calm and Carry On” now seems very pre-Covid. With the new coronavirus variant sending the country’s infection curve sharply skyward, the government intends to keep the lockdown in place until mid-February, when the country’s most vulnerable residents, including everyone older than 70, are expected to have been vaccinated. That will require about two million shots a week, a huge increase from the current clip.
Europe is even further behind. In Germany, where the government was poised to extend lockdown measures through January, nearly 265,000 people had received a first shot as the nationwide drive entered its second week, according to health officials. Those numbers dwarf the vaccinations in France, where only about 500 people received the vaccine during the previous week.
The pandemic has warped notions of national identity, truth and time itself, but it has also created a shared vulnerability. People are sealed off from one another in their masks, in their rooms, in their packed or empty households, in the “Continue Watching” categories of their Netflix accounts, in their polarized politics, in their hospital beds and video chat screens. The whole world seems to be alone together, cut off from the pre-Covid conceptions of what life was supposed to look like.
“It’s been tough,” said Fabrizio Topi, a cafe owner in Rome struggling to make ends meet. “But it’s the same the world over.”
That search for unity in itself is something. Taking lessons from natural disasters, charity groups and mental health advocates have emphasized the importance of staying connected and fostering communities that recognize that many people are in a similar situation. Others are looking within themselves for resilience and even improvement to beat back despondency.
But nearly a year into the crisis, after any New Year’s buzz has worn off, talk of common fragility and self-actualization can feel like whistling in the dark. For many, despair is setting in.
“We’re adrift,” said Luis Miguel Melche, 42, a Mexico City-based production manager for rock and pop groups. Mexico City, a global capital for food, literature and the arts, has gone quiet. “It’s totally dead,” he said.
Usually Mr. Melche enjoys the busy season’s earnings in January by unwinding and planning ahead. Now he is wound tight as ever, he said, and as for plans, “there isn’t anything.” He is home, unemployed, drawing down his savings and wondering when and if things will rebound.
“It’s uncertainty, worry,” Mr. Melche said. “There’s no sense of motivation, that it’s a New Year and that things will happen.”
Even places that much of the world looked to with admiration for their response to the pandemic have stumbled into the New Year.
South Korea, with near blanket contact-tracing and effective quarantines, had seemed to dodge the scourge. But over Christmas week, infections soared to the largest daily increases yet, and officials this week introduced a nationwide ban on private gatherings of more than four people.
China has had success in stamping out the virus after it first exploded there — recently reporting less than 50 daily new cases at a time when the United States, the world’s most-infected country, is hitting more than 200,000 new cases and 2,000 deaths a day.
Though scattered clusters of cases have emerged in China in recent weeks, including in Beijing, bringing fresh restrictions and warnings against mass gatherings, residents greeted 2021 with a mix of hope and concern.
“My deepest wish is that we can all take off our masks and live a normal life,” said Pan Li, an insurance agent in the northeastern city of Dalian, which is grappling with a small outbreak.
She is grappling with her own problems, too. She and her husband have struggled to save money amid an economic downturn, put off any hopes of travel, and taken on home-schooling their 5-year-old daughter, whose preschool closed. “I hope this will be over soon,” she said. “A New Year needs a new image.”
In Japan, a looming state of emergency for Tokyo is dashing long-harbored hopes.
Ellen Richards, who is half-Japanese and half-American, hoped to greet the new year by celebrating her 20th birthday, the official age of adulthood in Japan, donning an elaborate kimono and visiting a shrine for Coming of Age Day. She wanted to feel more a part of Japanese culture and please her Japanese grandparents. Her grandmother, a retired seamstress with dementia, would help her dress. “It was finally my moment to feel a little bit more part of things,” she said.
Instead, Ms. Richards’s local ward office in central Tokyo — along with more than a dozen around the city — has canceled its public ceremony. She did not bother getting a kimono. She planned to wave to her grandparents outside their home, as she always did, but now as an adult.
In India, Mohammad Shamim, who supervises New Delhi’s oldest and largest Muslim cemetery, showed how the plot of land dedicated to 850 Covid victims had grown from one acre to five and a half. The dead were buried in segregated 15-feet-deep pits.
He has buried four new victims since New Year’s. But he is optimistic that he soon will be inoculated with one of the vaccines that the Indian government has recently authorized for emergency use.
“We’re in a better place,” Mr. Shamim said.
In the globalized demand for vaccines, Mr. Shamim’s potential inoculation spells delay elsewhere. India, like South Africa, is a vaccine producer for many of the world’s less developed nations through Covax — a World Health Organization initiative created to ensure equitable access to Covid-19 vaccines. Wealthy nations have already bought up South Africa’s first millions of doses, however, and South Africans must wait well into the New Year.
India, determined to take a different path, announced on Sunday that it would not export about one billion doses of the Oxford University-AstraZeneca coronavirus vaccine for several months until its own vulnerable populations were inoculated.
The virus has burrowed into people’s lives, digging tunnels of loneliness that can feel never-ending even in places that have fared relatively well.
In Melbourne, Lee Lee, a 73-year-old American retiree, and her Australian husband took the precaution of self-isolating in February and told their loved ones that the end would soon be in sight. Nearly a year later, Mrs. Lee is still in self-imposed lockdown, but her husband is gone. There was no funeral. Condolences over Zoom had to suffice.
“I really would have liked to have had a hug from my stepson. He looks so much like his father,” she said, fighting back tears.
She fell asleep early on New Year’s Eve. “I may lie down for a bit,” she said. “But I will get through it, and I will get up.”
Reporting was contributed by Kirk Semple from Mexico City; Damien Cave from Sydney; Motoko Rich from Tokyo; Javier C. Hernández from Taipei, Emma Bubola and Elisabetta Povoledo from Rome; Emily Schmall from New Delhi; and Benjamin Mueller from London. Albee Zhang contributed research.