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Easter marked like no other amid coronavirus outbreak

St Peter’s Square at the Vatican, where tens of thousands would normally gather, was empty of crowds on Easter Sunday.

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Pope Francis celebrated an Easter Mass inside an empty St Peter’s Basilica (Andrew Medichini/AP)

Pope Francis celebrated an Easter Mass inside an empty St Peter’s Basilica (Andrew Medichini/AP)

Pope Francis celebrated an Easter Mass inside an empty St Peter’s Basilica (Andrew Medichini/AP)

People around the world celebrated Easter at a distance on Sunday, with most churches closed and family gatherings cancelled amid wide-ranging coronavirus shutdowns.

Southern Europe and the United States, whose death toll of over 20,600 is now the world’s highest, have been the recent focal points of the pandemic.

But coronavirus hot spots have been shifting constantly and new concerns are rising in Japan, Turkey and Britain, where the death toll surpassed 10,000.

Uncertainties loomed about the months ahead, with a top European Union official suggesting people hold off on making any summer holiday plans.

St Peter’s Square at the Vatican, where tens of thousands would normally gather to hear Pope Francis deliver his “Urbi et Orbi” speech and blessing “to the city and the world,” was empty of crowds, ringed by police barricades.

Francis celebrated Easter Mass inside the largely vacant basilica, with the faithful watching on TV at home.

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Pope Francis delivers his blessing during Easter Sunday Mass inside an empty St Peter’s Basilica (Andreas Solaro/Pool Photo via AP)

Pope Francis delivers his blessing during Easter Sunday Mass inside an empty St Peter’s Basilica (Andreas Solaro/Pool Photo via AP)

AP/PA Images

Pope Francis delivers his blessing during Easter Sunday Mass inside an empty St Peter’s Basilica (Andreas Solaro/Pool Photo via AP)

Similar scenes played out around the world.

With houses of worship shut by the Church of England, the Archbishop of Canterbury, Justin Welby, celebrated an Easter service from his kitchen in London for his flock of 85 million worldwide.

In Europe, countries used roadblocks, fines and other tactics to keep people from travelling over an Easter weekend with beautiful spring weather.

Officials in Italy said the country recorded the lowest number of new coronavirus victims in three weeks, with 431 people dying in the past day to bring its total to 19,899.

It was the lowest day-to-day toll since March 19.

As hard-hit countries like Italy and Spain see reduced daily virus infections and deaths, economic pressures are mounting to loosen the tight restrictions on daily life to fight off the pandemic.

German president Frank-Walter Steinmeier told his compatriots in a rare televised address: “Every one of you has changed his life radically; every one of you has saved human lives in doing so and is saving more every day.”

When and how the restrictions are loosened is something that “all of us have… in our hands, with our patience and our discipline,” he said.

Some European nations are starting tentative moves to ease their shutdowns.

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A view of Pamplona, northern Spain, on Easter Sunday during lockdown to prevent the spread of the coronavirus (Alvaro Barrientos/AP)

A view of Pamplona, northern Spain, on Easter Sunday during lockdown to prevent the spread of the coronavirus (Alvaro Barrientos/AP)

AP/PA Images

A view of Pamplona, northern Spain, on Easter Sunday during lockdown to prevent the spread of the coronavirus (Alvaro Barrientos/AP)

Spain, which on Sunday reported its lowest daily growth in infections in three weeks, will allow workers in some non-essential industries to return to factories and construction sites on Monday.

But much uncertainty remains. Chancellor Sebastian Kurz said in an open letter to Austrians that the virus will “be with us for months yet”.

And asked by Germany’s Bild am Sonntag newspaper whether people should book summer holidays, European Commission president Ursula von der Leyen replied: “I would advise waiting with such plans.”

“No one can make reliable forecasts for July and August at the moment,” she said.

Restaurants and bars have already missed out on holiday business.

“Sales are zero and we have a series of expenses: rent, stock, and we have even had to increase spending with security personnel to prevent robberies,” said Pablo Gonzalo, a bar manager in the southern Spanish city of Malaga.

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Social distancing guidelines saw many churches live-stream their Easter mass (Steve Helber/AP)

Social distancing guidelines saw many churches live-stream their Easter mass (Steve Helber/AP)

AP/PA Images

Social distancing guidelines saw many churches live-stream their Easter mass (Steve Helber/AP)

In his Easter address, the pope called for global solidarity to confront the “epochal challenge” of the pandemic.

Francis urged political leaders to give hope and opportunity to the millions laid off work.

“This is not a time for self-centeredness, because the challenge we are facing is shared by all, without distinguishing between persons,” he said.

In Spain, churches rang their bells at noon to echo the pope’s message of comfort to the victims of the pandemic and to offer hope.

In Italy, premier Giuseppe Conte thanked people for their sacrifices in fighting the virus, and acknowledged that many families are suffering the loss of loved ones as they celebrate Easter with empty places at the table.

“Together, we will make it,” Mr Conte said in a Facebook post.

More than 1.79 million infections have been reported and 110,000 people have died worldwide, according to Johns Hopkins University.

The US has the highest numbers, with over 530,000 confirmed cases.

Turkey took many by surprise in imposing a partial weekend lockdown after previously taking a more relaxed approach.

A sudden Friday evening announcement of a 48-hour curfew in 31 cities, including Ankara and Istanbul, prompted crowds to rush to grocery stores.

The country had previously imposed a curfew on those under 20 and over 65, exempting most of the workforce to keep its beleaguered economy on track.

In Japan, emergency medical groups warned that health care facilities are getting stretched thin, and masks and surgical gowns were running short amid a surge in patients.

The Israeli government approved a tight quarantine of several areas of Jerusalem, including the historic Old City, to slow the spread of the virus in its most susceptible neighbourhoods.

Britain’s virus death toll passed the 10,000 mark, the fourth European country to do so.

Prime Minister Boris Johnson, meanwhile, was released from hospital after a week but is not immediately returning to work.

PA