South Africans swap firecrackers for candles amid pandemic

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Frontline workers attend a candlelight ceremony on New Year's Eve on the famed Nelson Mandela Bridge in downtown Johannesburg Thursday, Dec. 31, 2020. Many South Africans will swap firecrackers for candles to mark New Year's Eve amid COVID-19 restrictions including a nighttime curfew responding to President Cyril Ramaphosa's call to light a candle to honor those who have died in the COVID-19 pandemic and the health workers who are on the frontline of battling the disease. (AP Photo/Denis Farrell)

JOHANNESBURG – Many South Africans swapped firecrackers for candles to mark New Year’s Eve amid COVID-19 restrictions including a nighttime curfew.

Instead of ushering in 2021 at packed events with dance music and fireworks, many South Africans responded to President Cyril Ramaphosa's call to light a candle to honor those who have died in the pandemic and the health workers who are on the front line of battling the disease.

“This year has been very tough for most people, and it hit too close to home for me when I lost my aunt,” said Lieschen Burger, who said she will be spending a quiet night at home with her family. She said they will pray that 2021 will be a better, healthy year for all.

South Africa's current resurgence of the coronavirus is fueled by a new, more infectious variant. The country announced a record high of 17,710 new cases and 465 deaths in the past 24 hours, bringing the total cumulative number of cases to more than 1,039,000, including 28,033 deaths.

With hospitals reaching capacity, the government this week reintroduced strict measures including bans on the sale of alcohol and public gatherings.

Urging all South Africans to battle the virus, Ramaphosa called on the nation to celebrate New Year’s Eve in a different way.

“Let us each light a candle in memory of those who have lost their lives, in tribute to those on the frontline who are working tirelessly to protect us from harm, in appreciation of the great sacrifices that have been made this past year, and in the confidence that the year ahead will bring health, peace and hope to our people,” an emotional Ramaphosa said in a televised address to the nation that he called a “family chat.”

The president said he would light a candle in Cape Town at midnight.

Annual New Year’s Eve celebrations have been canceled, including Johannesburg’s annual raucous dance party that attracts thousands. Instead, the mayor of South Africa's largest city will light a candle on the landmark Nelson Mandela Bridge.

Beaches where crowds usually gather on New Year's Day have been closed.

Health Minister Zweli Mkhize will broadcast a candle lighting ceremony from a hospital in Durban.

Johannesburg resident Lieschen Burger not only lost her aunt to COVID-19 in August, she learned Wednesday that her sister-in-law's father had died after contracting the disease.

“I have seen so many people’s lives change this year and I hope 2021 will be much better,” she told The Associated Press.

Riva Reddy said he had lost his job in the transport industry.

“I have not had an income since the lockdown (in April). My wife is the only one earning an income and that is not easy on the family," he said. “I have started selling curry, rice, and samoosas just to make some money."

At midnight he will light a candle with his family and pray for everybody who has suffered from the pandemic.

“When I light the candle tonight,” he said, "I will also be praying to get a job in 2021.”