US coronavirus deaths top 20,000 with billions in Easter lockdown
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by Laura Bonilla with Dmitry Zaks in Rome and AFP bureaus
The United States passed the grim milestone of 20,000 coronavirus deaths Saturday as huge swaths of the globe celebrated the Easter holiday weekend under lockdown at home.
The outbreak has now claimed the lives of at least 20,506 people in the US, which leads the world in deaths and in the number of declared infections — at least 527,111, according to a tally maintained by Baltimore-based Johns Hopkins University.
Italy, the hardest-hit country in Europe with a population a fifth the size of the US, recorded 19,468 confirmed virus fatalities.
But hopes began to rise in Western Europe and heavily infected parts of the United States that the pandemic was peaking, with many looking to China’s Wuhan, the disease’s original epicenter, where officials have been lifting stay-indoors restrictions and life began to return to normal.
Churches were expected to be empty on Easter Sunday, the climax of Holy Week for the world’s two billion-plus Christians, with congregations shuttered at home to stem a pandemic that has infected 1.7 million and killed more than 107,000.
Pope Francis live-streamed his Easter Vigil from an almost empty St Peter’s Basilica.
“Darkness and death do not have the last word,” he said.
“Over these weeks, we have kept repeating, ‘All will be well,’ clinging to the beauty of our humanity and allowing words of encouragement to rise up from our hearts. But as the days go by and fears grow, even the boldest hope can dissipate.
“Let us not give in to resignation … We can and must hope,” the pontiff said.
Francis was praised by Italy’s prime minister Giuseppe Conte for his “gesture of responsibility” to observe Easter in private.
“His words, although spoken far from Saint Peter’s Square, which was wrapped in an unreal silence, have reached everyone,” said Conte.
Worshipers in Rome stocked up on traditional Easter cakes ahead of the weekend, some piling them onto scooters outside of grocery stores, eager to maintain parts of the holiday tradition.
In the United States a handful of priests and pastors, snubbing rules and medical advice, risked arrest by announcing they would hold public services in their churches on Sunday.
But most were putting services online, and some were innovating with “drive-in” blessings.
President Donald Trump will be among those following Easter services online, tweeting he would log on Sunday morning to watch Robert Jeffress, the leader of a Southern Baptist megachurch in Texas and an ardent supporter of the US leader.
The hardest-hit countries of Europe, and the centers of infection in the United States — New York and New Orleans — were seeing signs that infection rates were levelling off.
Numbers out of Spain offered a shred of hope Saturday: 510 new deaths, a dip in fatalities for the third day in a row.
Newly-reported coronavirus deaths in France fell by one-third from Friday to 635 on Saturday.
“A very high plateau for the epidemic appears to have been reached but the epidemic remains very active,” said French health official Jerome Salomon.
“We must absolutely remain vigilant,” he added.
Italy meanwhile said the number of daily deaths there was starting to level off — though the government resisted pressure to lift its lockdown, extending confinement measures until May 3.
New York and New Orleans saw a slowdown in the number of new infections, deaths and hospitalizations.
British PM recovering
But Britain on Saturday recorded its second highest daily toll, as virus-stricken Prime Minister Boris Johnson made “very good progress” after being released from intensive care, a spokeswoman said.
Although global infections stand at 1.75 million, according to an AFP tally of official counts, the real number is thought to be much higher, with many countries only testing the most serious cases.
Many experts and the World Health Organization are cautioning countries against lifting lockdown measures too quickly.
WHO chief Tedros Adhanom Ghebreyesus warned Friday that jumping the gun could lead to a “deadly resurgence” of the novel coronavirus, known as SARS-CoV-2.
From the crowded slums of Mexico City, Nairobi and Mumbai to conflict hotspots in the Middle East, there are fears that the worst is yet to come for the world’s poorest.
Trump said this past week that the disease was near its peak in the United States and he was considering ways to re-open the world’s biggest economy as soon as possible.
“We look like we’ll be coming in on the very, very low side, below the lowest side of the curve of death,” Trump said in an interview with Fox News.