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The World Prepares For A Very Different Kind Of Christmas

Visiting Santa in the coronavirus-era
Visiting Santa in the coronavirus-era
Anne Sophie Goninet

After a year that's been as trying as it is troubling, the holidays are finally upon us, and for many there's a temptation to treat the upcoming festivities as a welcome catharsis. But for governments, this "most wonderful time of the year" represents a real conundrum: How to allow for some much-needed Yuletide joy while at the same time, taking steps to keep the New Year from beginning with a new surge of coronavirus cases.

Christmas bubbles: The UK will also allow people to gather, but only for five days, between Dec. 23-27, with a larger window for Northern Ireland to give more time to people to travel between the nations.

  • This "Christmas bubble" should not include people from more than three different households, the government guidelines read, adding that one person can only be in one such group and cannot change afterwards.

  • "A fixed bubble is a sensible and proportionate way to balance the desire to spend time with others over the Christmas period, while limiting the risk of spreading infection," the government says.

  • The guidelines also recommend that UK citizens celebrate Christmas in other ways — digitally, for instance, or by meeting outdoors.

A "moral contract": In Canada, the government of Québec announced an even narrower opening in the calendar for Christmas celebrations: Dec. 24-27,Radio Canada reports, with gatherings limited to 10 people maximum.

  • Prime Minister François Legault has asked Quebecers to limit themselves to two different family or friends gatherings, adding that this "moral contract" between citizens and the government also included a week of quarantine before and after these four days, to limit the risk of contagion in January.

A results-based approach: In Austria, authorities are so far taking a wait-and-see approach to the Christmas question. Easing restrictions is a possibility, but it depends — on the results of a massive voluntary testing campaign that began at the start of December.

  • Once it has the data in hand, the government will decide how and when to lift the national lockdown, which is so far set to end on Dec. 7.

  • The government has ordered at least 7 million antigen tests, which will first be used for teachers and police officers as well as citizens in areas with high infection rates.

Christmas tree baubles wearing face masks on display in a Russian factory — Photo: Andrei Samsonov/TASS via ZUMA Press

Santa's out-of-work helpers: Finland, world famous for its Santa Claus Village in Rovaniemi, Lapland, has imposed strict travel restrictions for foreigners

  • Citizens from all European destinations other than the Vatican are currently subjected to a 10-day self-quarantine when entering the country. Either that, or they have to submit a negative coronavirus test certificate that is less than 72 hours old at the time of arrival, but which will only allow them to stay for a maximum of three days if they don't self-isolate.

  • Clearly, though, the restrictions are a blow to the country's winter tourism industry, which relies heavily on overseas visitors. "For the period mid-March 2020 to March 2021 we estimate around 700 million euros in tourism revenue loss and 5,000 fewer tourism-related jobs in Lapland," Sanna Kärkkäinen, CEO of Visit Rovaniemi, toldYle. The region is trying to attract domestic tourists, but tourism promoters believe this will not be enough to compensate for the huge losses.

  • The Finnish Parliament's Constitutional Law Committee has recently rejected a proposed testing-based model to allow visitors to enter the country for non-essential purposes, frustrating winter tourism businesses even more.

Prudence in Palestine: For obvious reasons, Bethlehem — Jesus Christ's birthplace — is usually buzzing with activity at this time of year. But with international pilgrims banned, and restaurants, hotels and souvenir shops closed, Christmas celebrations in the Palestine city will be noticeably subdued this time around.

  • The famed Christmas tree lighting service will be limited to just 15 guests, while the Midnight Mass, normally attended by religious leaders and hundreds of pilgrims, will be scaled back. The event will be broadcast live for the general public.

  • The Palestinian Authority has imposed a new nighttime lockdown from 7 p.m. to 6 a.m., which could be extended through Christmas if the number of infections continue to surge.

"Reinventing Christmas," titles French daily La Croix

Silent nights: Catholic church officials in Manila, the capital city of the Philippines, have announced Christmas carol activities will be banned,The Philippine News Agencyreports.

  • Churches were asked not to organize carolings in order to "protect the public and the choir members' as according to experts, the virus could easily spread through singing, officials say.

  • Christmas carols are an important part of the holiday traditions in the Philippines, a predominantly Catholic country which celebrates the world's longest Christmas season, from Sept. 1 to New Year's Eve.

New rules for Saint Nick: In Belgium, children eagerly await the arrival, on Dec. 6, of the gift-giving Saint Nicholas. But because the country is one of the hardest hit in Europe, the government decided this year to offer something to Saint Nicholas in return: a letter containing recommendations, the daily Le Soir reports, for keeping things fun but also safe:

  • "We can reassure you, you will not have to run from roof to roof in a spacesuit. However, we advise you to respect social distancing, wash your hands regularly and wear a mask when necessary," the guidelines read.

  • The letter also states that thanks to a ministerial ruling, Saint Nicholas will be allowed to distribute presents at night despite the curfew. The same permission was granted to "Père Fouettard," a companion of Saint Nicholas, who punishes naughty children. The letter adds, however, that "Every child is a hero and for once, you will not have to check your big notebook to see who was nice this year."

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Economy

Russian Diamonds Are Belgium's Best Friend — But For How Much Longer?

Belgium has lobbied hard for the past year to keep Russian diamonds off the list of sanctioned goods. Indeed, there would be a huge impact on the economy of the port city of Antwerp, if Europe finally joins with the U.S. and others in banning sale of so-called "blood diamonds" from Russia. But a 10th package of EU sanctions arriving this month may finally be the end of the road.

Photo of a technician examining the condition of a diamond in Antwerp, Belgium

A technician examining the condition of a diamond in Antwerp, Belgium

Wang Xiaojun / Xinhua via ZUMA Wire

Since Vladimir Putin's invasion of Ukraine, the European Union has agreed to nine different packages of sanctions against Russia. With the aim to punish Moscow's leadership and to cripple the war economy, European bans and limits have been placed on imports of a range of Russian products from coal, gas and steal to caviar and vodka — were successively banned over the past 11 months.

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Still, one notable Russian export is a shining exception to the rule, still imported into Europe as if nothing has changed: diamonds.

Russian state conglomerate Alrosa, which accounts for virtually all of the country's diamond production (95%) and deals with more than one-fourth of total global diamond imports, has been chugging along, business as usual.

But that may be about to change, ahead of an expected 10th package of sanctions slated to be finalized in the coming weeks. During recent negotiations, with 26 of the 27 EU members agreeing on the statement that ALSROA’s diamonds should no longer be imported, the one holdout was not surprisingly Belgium.

The Belgian opposition to the ban is explained by the port city of Antwerp, where 85% of the rough diamonds in the world pass through to get cut, polished, and marketed. There are estimates that 30,000 Belgians work for Alrosa.

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