Christians celebrated Easter Sunday under coronavirus lockdown in many countries with church pews empty and the pope on live stream, as the US death toll from the disease passed 20,000.
At the climax of Holy Week for the planet’s two billion-plus Christians, congregations were shuttered at home to avoid spreading the pathogen that has infected at least 1.7 million worldwide.
Pope Francis was set to break with centuries of tradition by taking his Easter mass online, with Saint Peter’s Square — packed every year with worshippers — left deserted.
The United States, with around a fifth of the more than 100,000 total COVID-19 deaths, topped the list for both fatalities and numbers of declared cases, according to a tally maintained by Baltimore-based Johns Hopkins University.
Italy, the hardest-hit country in Europe, has recorded more than 19,000 confirmed virus deaths — second only to the US, which has a population five times its size.
But hopes began to rise in Western Europe and heavily infected parts of America that the pandemic was peaking.
Many were looking to China’s Wuhan, where the disease first emerged late last year, as life began to return to normal while officials lifted stay-inside restrictions.
However for much of the world, from India to France, strict lockdowns were still in force.
A handful of US priests and pastors risked arrest by announcing they would hold public services in their churches on Sunday, snubbing rules and medical advice.
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.
– ‘We must hope’ –
On Saturday, Pope Francis live-streamed his Easter Vigil to the world’s 1.3 billion Catholics from an almost empty St Peter’s Basilica.
“Darkness and death do not have the last word,” he said.
“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,” said the pontiff.
Francis was praised by Italy’s Prime Minister Giuseppe Conte for his “gesture of responsibility” to observe Easter in private.
In Jerusalem, Christians were prevented from gathering for the Easter service and all cultural sites were shuttered, regardless of their religious affiliation.
And at one church in the Philippines, photos of parishioners were taped onto the empty pews.
– Levelling –
The hardest-hit countries of Europe, and the centres of infection in the United States — New York and New Orleans — were seeing signs of infection rates levelling off.
Numbers from 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 also fell by one-third from Friday to 635.
“A very high plateau for the epidemic appears to have been reached, but the epidemic remains very active,” said French health official Jerome Salomon, urging people to remain vigilant.
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 hospitalisations.
– Resurgence warning –
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.