Philippines celebrates Christmas following deadly typhoon
MANILA, Philippines (AP) – Hundreds of thousands of people in the Philippines, Asia’s largest Roman Catholic nation, celebrated Christmas on Saturday without a home, adequate food and water, electricity and cell phone connections after a powerful typhoon hit killed at least 375 people in the last week and devastated mainly the central island provinces.
More than 371,000 homes were damaged or washed away by the storm. Before Typhoon Rai struck on December 16, millions were returning to shopping malls, public parks and churches after an alarming spike in COVID-19 infections in September has eased significantly in recent weeks with more vaccinations and lighter quarantine restrictions keeping omicron cases in the country at just three so far.
Governor Arthur Yap of the hard-hit Bohol province, where more than 100 people died in the typhoon and around 150,000 homes were washed away or damaged, on Saturday asked foreign aid agencies to help provide temporary shelter and water filtration systems to supplement the Philippine government. aid.
“I refuse to believe that there is no Christmas spirit today among our people. They are conservative Catholics. But it is obviously very discreet. There is overwhelming fear, there are no freebies, there have been no Christmas Eve dinners, there is none of that today, ”Yap told the Associated Press by cell phone.
Yap said he was happy that many Filipinos could celebrate Christmas in a safer way after COVID-19 cases fell, but he begged, “Please don’t forget us.”
In Manila, which was untouched by the typhoon, Filipino Catholics were relieved to be able to return to churches on Saturday at Christmas, although only a fraction were allowed inside and worshipers were required to wear masks and keep a safe distance from each other. .
Elsewhere in the region, Christmas celebrations took place amid varying levels of coronavirus restrictions.
In South Korea, the strictest social distancing rules remained in place, forcing churches to accept a limited number of worshipers – 70% of their capacity – and participants had to be fully immunized.
At Seoul’s Yoido Full Gospel Church, the country’s largest Protestant church, thousands of masked worshipers sang hymns and prayed as the service was broadcast online. Many other churches across the country offered in-person and online services.
South Korea has been grappling with the spike in COVID-19 infections and deaths since it significantly relaxed its virus control measures in early November as part of efforts to get back to normal before the pandemic. The country was eventually forced to reinstate its strictest distancing guidelines, such as a four-person limit for social gatherings and a 9 p.m. curfew for restaurants and cafes.
The delta variant remains the dominant strain in the country, but experts say the omicron variant could overtake it within a month or two. As of Saturday, South Korea had confirmed 343 cases of omicron.
New Zealanders celebrated Christmas in the heat of midsummer with few restrictions, in one of the few countries in the world largely untouched by the omicron variant.
Ninety-five percent of adults in New Zealand have received at least one dose of the vaccine, making them one of the most vaccinated populations in the world. The only cases of omicron that have been found in New Zealand have been safely contained at the border.
As COVID-19 has spread around the world over the past two years, New Zealand has used its isolation to its advantage. Border controls kept the worst of the virus at bay and by Christmas this year New Zealand had recorded 50 deaths out of a population of 5.5 million.
In August, New Zealand’s largest city, Auckland, was stranded for 188 days. At its peak, the outbreak caused by the delta recorded around 220 cases per day. Lately the daily average has been around 50.
But this success comes at a price. There were empty chairs at some tables this holiday season because some New Zealanders living and working overseas were able to return home due to limitations in the country’s managed isolation and quarantine program.
The traditional dining tables of a Nordic winter – the turkey and all the trimmings – are common in New Zealand. But the Kiwis also celebrate at the antipodes, with barbecues on the beaches bordered by the native pohutukawa tree, which only blooms at Christmas.
At New Zealand’s Scott base in Antarctica, some New Zealanders enjoyed a white Christmas. During the summer on the frozen continent, the sun never sinks below the horizon and in 24 hours of daylight the temperature hovers around 0 degrees Celsius (32 degrees Fahrenheit).
About 200 people pass through the base during the summer season – scientists, support personnel and Defense Force personnel who provide communications and other services. Numbers are lower this year due to the pandemic and all staff traveling to the mainland have had to self-isolate and undergo COVID-19 testing before departure.
Most of the Pacific island countries whose health systems could have been overwhelmed by COVID-19 outbreaks have largely succeeded in preventing the virus from entering thanks to strict border controls and a high number of vaccinations.
Fiji is experiencing an ongoing epidemic and has claimed nearly 700 lives. About 92% of the adult population is now fully vaccinated, 97.7% have received at least one dose and many residents of this deeply religious country will celebrate Christmas at traditional church services and family reunions.
Health Secretary James Fong in a Christmas message urged Fijians to “please celebrate wisely”.
In the remote province of Macuata, residents of four villages received a special Christmas present: electricity was connected to their villages for the first time.
Australia celebrated Christmas amid a wave of COVID-19 cases, worse than at any stage of the pandemic, which has forced states to reinstate mask warrants and other preventative measures. The omicron strain is widespread in some states and is estimated to account for over 70% of all new cases in Queensland.
In his Christmas message, Prime Minister Scott Morrison spoke of COVID-19’s toll on society.
“This pandemic, it continues to rock us,” Morrison said. “The omicron variant is just the latest challenge we faced. But together, always together and only together, we continue to move forward. “
The summer heat may have discouraged outdoor Christmas parties in some places. The temperature in Perth, Western Australia, was expected to reach 42 degrees Celsius on Saturday, making it the hottest Christmas since the records began more than a century ago.
On Christmas Eve, a student driver in the Northern Territory fled with a truck containing more than $ 10,000 worth of Christmas hams which was empty when it was found.
“This behavior can only be described as Grinch,” said Police Detective Mark Bland.
Jim Gomez, Aaron Favila and Joeal Calupitan in Manila, Philippines; Hyung-jin Kim in Seoul, South Korea; and Steve McMorran in Sydney contributed to this report.