Millions observe Easter at home as criticism of Japan’s COVID-19 actions grow

People around the world began celebrating Good Friday and Easter from the safety of their homes, as rare divisions surfaced in Japan over how to tackle the growing coronavirus outbreak there.

Politicians and public health officials have warned that the hard-won gains against the pandemic must not be jeopardized by relaxing social distancing over the holiday weekend. Across Europe, where Easter is one of the busiest travel times, authorities set up roadblocks and otherwise discouraged family gatherings.

In Japan, many have criticized Prime Minister Shinzo Abe for being slow to act. On Friday, the Japanese prefecture of Aichi, home to the Toyoto car company, declared its own state of emergency, saying it cannot wait for the government to add it to its list.

“The situation is critical,” said Aichi Gov. Hideaki Omura. “We decided to do everything we can to protect Aichi residents’ lives and health.”

Japan reported 579 new cases, for a total of about 5,000 and 100 deaths. The country has the world’s oldest population, and COVID-19 can be especially serious for the elderly.

In a measure of how fast the coronavirus has brought world economies to their knees, a staggering 16.8 million Americans lost their jobs in just three weeks. And still more job cuts are expected. The U.S. unemployment rate in April could hit 15% — a number not seen since the end of the Great Depression.

There was some measure of relief in Britain as Prime Minister Boris Johnson was moved out of intensive care at the London hospital where he is being treated for the virus. The 55-year-old had taken a turn for the worse earlier in the week as his country descended into its biggest crisis since World War II.

Worldwide, the number of dead topped 95,000 and confirmed infections reached 1.6 million, according to Johns Hopkins University, though the true numbers are believed much higher, in part because of different rules for counting the dead and coverups by some governments.

The U.S. appeared on course to overtake Italy within days as the country with the highest number of fatalities. However, virus deaths as a proportion of the population in the U.S. remains about one-sixth of those in hard-hit Italy and Spain.

There have been some positive signs. South Korea reported just 27 new cases, its ninth day in a row below 100. California saw its first daily decrease in intensive care hospitalizations since the outbreak began. Australia and New Zealand have this week recorded steady declines in infection rates.

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But a spike in deaths in Britain and New York indicated the battle is far from over.

New York state reported a record-breaking number of dead for a third straight day, 799. More than 7,000 people have died in the state, accounting for almost half the U.S. death toll of more than 16,000.

President Donald Trump brushed off fears the economy won’t quickly rebound after the crisis, as he has predicted, saying he had a “strong feeling” that “the economy is going to do very well.”

“I think that what’s going to happen is we’re going to have a big bounce, rather than a small bounce,” he told reporters. “I think we’re going to open up strong.”

The U.S. Federal Reserve announced it will provide up to $2.3 trillion in loans targeted toward both households and businesses.

In many European countries, where social safety nets tend to be stronger than in the U.S., government programs that subsidize workers’ pay are keeping millions of people on payrolls, though typically with fewer hours and at lower wages.

Governments from the 19 countries that use the euro agreed Thursday on a package of measures that could provide more than a half-trillion euros ($550 billion) for companies, workers and health systems to cushion the economic impact of the outbreak.

The head of the International Monetary Fund warned that the global economy is headed for the worst recession since the Depression. The U.N. labour organization said the equivalent of 195 million full-time jobs could be lost in the second quarter, while aid group Oxfam International estimated half a billion people worldwide could be pushed into poverty.

Amid widespread restrictions on public gatherings, major religious denominations are holding virtual services where members can watch on TV or online. Others are arranging prayer at drive-in theatres, where people can stay in their cars.

Other churches plan to move ahead with services, especially in states like Texas, where the governor declared religious gatherings “essential services.” A Houston church has installed hand-washing stations and rearranged its 1,000-person sanctuary to hold about 100 people spaced 6 feet (2 metres) or more apart.

Pope Francis will celebrate Easter Mass in a nearly empty St. Peter’s Basilica instead of the huge square outside. In England, the Archbishop of Canterbury will deliver his Easter sermon by video.

Iran’s Supreme Leader Ayatollah Ali Khamenei suggested mass gatherings may be barred through the holy Muslim fasting month of Ramadan, which runs from late April through most of May.

There were some encouraging signs in France, where more than 12,000 have died from the virus. The national health agency saw indications the crisis is stabilizing.

New infections, hospitalizations and deaths have been levelling off in hard-hit Italy and Spain, which together have around 33,000 deaths, but the daily tolls remain shocking. Spain reported 683 more dead, bringing its total to more than 15,200. Britain recorded 881 new deaths, for close to 8,000 in all.

For most, the virus causes mild to moderate symptoms like fever and cough. But for some, especially older adults and the infirm, it can cause pneumonia. About 355,000 people have recovered, by Johns Hopkins’ count.

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Perry reported from Wellington, New Zealand. Associated Press journalists around the world contributed to this report.

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