Streets and places of worship stood empty Tuesday in Bangladesh, Malaysia, Thailand and other countries where traditionally boisterous, colorful New Year’s celebrations were cancelled, postponed, scaled back or chased indoors by COVID-19.
In Dhaka, Bangladesh’s capital with over 10 million people, residents welcomed the year 1427 on the Bengali calendar amid gloom as the nation recorded a milestone: More than 200 new coronavirus infections in a day – the country’s highest daily tally – that brought its confirmed cases to 1,012.
“Darkness is engulfing our world because of the coronavirus,” Prime Minister Sheikh Hasina said in a nationally televised address on the eve of Pahela Boishakh, as the first day of the Bengali new year is known.
“We shall overcome this,” she said, “and journey through to a new sunlit day.”
COVID-19, the pneumonia-like disease, has killed seven Bangladeshis during the past 24 hours, pushing the nation’s toll to 46, health officials said.
Pahela Boishakh is celebrated as a national holiday in Bangladesh, where it is often marked with lavish processions, fairs and family gatherings.
“This year, we cannot celebrate it in person owing to the coronavirus. We celebrate it through social media,” Habibullah Sirajee, director-general of the Bangla Academy, the national center for Bengali research, told BenarNews.
Sirajee recalled that Pahela Boishakh had been observed across religious boundaries by members of the nation’s Muslim majority and Hindu minority.
But Hasina, in her speech on Monday, asked Bangladeshis instead to stay indoors and celebrate the South Asian nation’s biggest festival online.
“We are to some extent confined. But the spirit of Pahela Boishakh will not die,” Abu Taher, a fine arts professor at Rajshahi University, told BenarNews.
Ruhul Alam, a Dhaka University student, said he was sad that he could not celebrate this year while wearing colorful masks and carrying banners. In Dhaka, he said, residents would often welcome the New Year by watching a cultural show at the Ramna Park.
“Hundreds of thousands of people of all faiths and ages throng at Ramna Park and Shahbag to welcome the first light of the Bengali calendar,” he told BenarNews. “But this year, the places remained quiet. This is unbelievable.”
Globally, almost 2 million infections have been recorded with the death toll at more than 125,000 as of Tuesday, according to data compiled by disease experts at U.S.-based Johns Hopkins University.
Since first appearing in Wuhan, China, last December, the novel coronavirus has spread to at least 185 countries and regions, disrupting Easter, Passover and Ramadan traditions, among others.
Malaysian king: ‘We shall prevail’
In Malaysia, even the king and queen were sharing greetings of “Happy Vishu” and well wishes for the Tamil New Year through online platforms.
“We wish you a prosperous, peaceful and joyous year ahead. Although times are tough right now, we will get through this as a nation,” King Al-Sultan Abdullah Ri'ayatuddin Al-Mustafa Billah posted on the National Palace’s official Instagram account.
“Keep the hope and courage alive and together. We shall prevail,” he said. “Stay home and stay safe!”
The king and the queen, who have tested negative for the coronavirus, went on self-quarantine for 14 days last month after seven staff members at the Istana Negara palace tested positive for COVID-19, according to state-run Bernama news service.
The king dedicated a post on Monday wishing all Sikhs “Happy Vaisakhi.”
“We may be apart from all our loved ones right now, but we are together as one nation as we battle this pandemic,” he said. “It will get better and we will endure as a family, as one country, as Malaysians.”
The Tamil New Year, or Varisha Piruppu (also called Puthandu), marks the first day of the first month – Chittirai – on the Tamil calendar. Besides the Tamil New Year, Vishu for the Malayalees and Vaisakhi for the Sikhs were also celebrated Tuesday.
For the Malayalee community, the New Year is often celebrated with the Vishukkani – a tray filled with yellow flowers, gold, jewelry, fruits, an image of Lord Krishna and a mirror, according to 36-year-old Kuala Lumpur resident, R. Seethivinay.
“It reflects abundant blessings,” Seethivinay told BenarNews, recalling that his neighbors and a few friends would usually come over to his house to mark the event.
Vishukkani said he would always prepare early in the morning for prayers before having lunch.
“Before this, every year, my mother will cook six to seven dishes and invite family and friends,” he said.
“Usually, we would have a great time together eating the traditional Malayalee dishes that my mother cooked,” he said. “Due to COVID-19, the New Year will be celebrated with us being apart from each other.”
Malaysia’s health ministry had recorded a total of 4,987 coronavirus cases as of Tuesday, with 82 deaths. The nation has taken strict measures to battle the pandemic. It shut its borders, closed schools and universities, restricted internal movement and ordered most businesses to close shop last month.
Chittirai Puttandu New Year for the Tamils, Vishu for the Malayalees and Vaisakhi for the Sikhs take place on the same date this year.
Another Kuala Lumpur resident, Ravinder Singh said he missed the three days of celebrations at the Gurdwara, a place of worship for Sikhs in which vegetarian meals were shared with family and friends as participants recited the holy book.
“This year we celebrate the day with immediate family members at home,” Singh, 50, said. He said his family enjoyed eating sweet delicacies and later on watched a Facebook live-streaming of the Akhand Paath prayers.
For Gengammal Valayutham, a 58-year-old resident of Penang state, the novel coronavirus has changed celebrations even for the Tamil New Year, which is traditionally observed with temple visits in the morning and prayers at home, followed by vegetarian means and sharing of sweets.
“We would wear the nicest saree and dhoti,” he said, referring to the traditional Indian wear for men. “We will have friends over,” he said.
“COVID-19 has changed our way of celebrating certain things,” he said, “but the culture and tradition remain same.”
Thailand blocks free-for-all water fight
In Buddhist-majority Thailand, meanwhile, rules imposed to battle the pandemic have also subdued celebrations for Songkran, the Thai New Year, which is often celebrated as a national holiday from April 13 to 15.
Local reports said Thais marked the event Tuesday without the usually chaotic water-splashing in Bangkok after the government called off the annual festival, which has been described as the world’s biggest water fight, where revelers douse one another with spray guns in a free-for-all.
Thailand has recorded 2,613 confirmed cases with 41 deaths as of Tuesday, according to health officials.
Nontarat Phaicharoen in Bangkok contributed to this report.