Virus mutes Easter celebrations as Europe's death toll tops 75,000


The pope's Easter Sunday message was peppered with prayers for the ill and urged European solidarity to fight the pandemic. (Photo: AFP)

Billions around the world celebrated Easter Sunday from lockdown at home as the pope urged solidarity to fight the coronavirus pandemic and the European death toll from the virus topped 75,000.

Unprecedented scenes of empty churches emerged from Italy to Panama and the Philippines, as religious leaders found creative ways to address parishioners marking the holiday weekend from the confines of their homes.

More than half the world -- over four billion people -- are in lockdown worldwide as governments scramble to halt the pandemic's deadly march across the globe.

The death toll from the virus soared past 109,000 this weekend, with more than 1.7 million reported infections globally.

Europe is by far the hardest-hit continent and on Sunday marked a grave milestone with more than 75,000 dead, according to an AFP tally.

The United States was quickly emerging as a hotspot as well, and on Saturday marked its own grim landmark: more than 20,000 dead, out of around half a million infected.

The US now has the highest death toll and most cases out of any country in the world.

Speaking from a near-empty Saint Paul's Cathedral, Pope Francis' Easter Sunday message was largely focused on the pandemic, offering prayers for the ill and urging a united European front to fight the pandemic.

"For many, this is an Easter of solitude lived amid the sorrow and hardship that the pandemic is causing, from physical suffering to economic difficulties," he said, in a live-streamed message beamed around the world.

He called for European "solidarity" in the face of the virus, adding: "After the Second World War, this beloved continent was able to rise again."

The pope had earlier urged creativity to mark the holy weekend -- a call that appears to have been met by some of the world's two billion-plus Christians.

In Panama, an archbishop blessed his nation from a helicopter, while worshippers in Spain blasted music from their balconies and US President Donald Trump said he would be among those following Easter services online.

In a church north of the Philippines capital Manila, hundreds of pictures of parishioners were taped to pews as a priest held a Sunday service to a near-empty room.

"Those photos are the representations of the people who are watching and attending mass through live streaming, so we also feel their presence virtually," said Father Mark Christopher De Leon.

"This is our way of being with them, praying for them spiritually, praying for them, praying for their safety."

- Plateau reached? -

As virus-tinged Easter celebrations were held worldwide, leaders in some hard-hit countries expressed cautious optimism the number of deaths and infections could be starting to peak.

Spain saw its daily death toll drop for three days straight -- but on Sunday reported a slight spike again with 619 fresh fatalities.

And though Italy was nearing the 20,000 dead marks, its daily death toll and rate of new infections has started to level off.

In France, newly reported coronavirus deaths 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, urging people to remain vigilant.

In the United States, New Orleans and hardest hit New York saw a slowdown in the number of new infections, deaths and hospitalisations, offer a shred of hope.

Trump said this past week that the disease was near its peak in the US 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.

In Britain, the death toll continued to mount and fatalities are likely to soon top 10,000.

Virus-stricken Prime Minister Boris Johnson was released from the hospital Sunday after he was admitted for coronavirus last Sunday, and spent three days in intensive care.

He praised his medical team Sunday before he left the hospital.

"I can't thank them enough. I owe them my life," said 55-year-old Johnson.

- Mumbai slum fears -

There were worrying signs the virus could be taking hold in new -- and vulnerable -- parts of the world, from the crowded slums of Mexico City, Nairobi and Mumbai to conflict hotspots in the Middle East.

Conflict-wracked Yemen reported its first case last week, sparking dire warnings from aid workers about the burden an outbreak could have on an already ravaged healthcare system.

And in Mumbai's crowded Dharavi slum -- one of Asia's biggest and the inspiration for the 2008 Oscar-winning film "Slumdog Millionaire" -- more than 43 cases were confirmed.

All shops, except pharmacies, were closed near so-called "containment zones" to limit the number of people in public spaces.

"We have been running extensive medical camps in Dharavi and other areas of Mumbai to test more people for coronavirus and make sure carriers are not ignored just because they don't display symptoms," a local official spokesman Khabale-Patil said.

Many experts and the World Health Organization are cautioning countries against lifting lockdown measures too quickly to avoid a second wave of infections.

China, where the virus first emerged at the end of last year in the central city of Wuhan, has seen an increase in imported infections as it starts to ease strict lockdown measures.