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Glimmer of hope in Europe as US braces for ‘toughest week’

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European nations hardest hit by the new coronavirus on Sunday reported encouraging signs in their fight against the deadly pandemic sweeping the globe, as the United States braced for a tough week ahead.

Italy reported its lowest daily toll in two weeks, a possible indication the tide may be turning in the deadliest disaster the country has faced since World War II.

"This is good news but we should not let our guard down," civil protection service chief Angelo Borrelli told reporters.

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In Spain, officials said the number of fatalities had fallen for the third straight day while France reported its lowest daily toll in a week.

Across the Atlantic, US President Donald Trump has warned Americans to brace for a "very horrendous" number of deaths in the coming days, as the number of confirmed cases there surged past 300,000 -- the highest in the world.

In New York state alone, the US epicentre, the death toll jumped over the past 24 hours to over 4,100.

A protester, with a face mask, argues with German police during a nationwide action under the moto ìWir hinterlassen Spuren - #LeaveNoOneBehindî to protest against Europe external borders and asking to prevent a "corona catastrophe" on April 5, 2020 in front of the landmark TV tower in Berlin, amid the new coronavirus COVID-19 pandemic. (Photo by Tobias SCHWARZ / AFP)


The rapid march of the virus has claimed over 65,000 lives in just three months and left about half the planet confined to their homes, drastically altering life for billions of people and plunging the global economy into recession.

With over 1.2 million people confirmed as infected, the virus is also putting massive pressure on healthcare services, with nations both rich and poor struggling to find enough staff and equipment.

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Pope Francis, head of the world's 1.2 billion Catholics, appealed for people to show courage in the face of the pandemic.

The elderly pontiff, who himself has been tested twice for the virus, celebrated his Palm Sunday mass by livestream. But Saint Peter's Square was deserted of the usual crowds and the basilica was almost empty.

And as Christians prepare for Easter -- the holiest event on their religious calendar, churches are closed and masses are being transmitted on television and on social networks.

- 'Great dose of humanity' -
Queen Elizabeth II is due to give a rare address Sunday aimed at rallying Britain, which has almost 5,000 fatalities.

The government is warning of tougher measures on social distancing to try to curb surging infections, fearing more people will gather in public spaces in the warm spring weather.

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In Italy, which has been under a strict lockdown for almost a month, officials reported 525 new deaths over the past 24 hours, the lowest since March 19.

But its overall death toll remains the highest in the world at 15,887.

There were signs of hope too for Spain, which registered 674 deaths Sunday, its third straight day of declining numbers. The government has nevertheless announced it is extending a near-total lockdown until April 25.

At a field hospital set up at a Madrid conference centre, staff applauded whenever a patient was healthy enough to be discharged.

Builder Eduardo Lopez, 59, gave a "10/10" rating to the staff who cared for him "with tenderness and a great dose of humanity".

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- 'We need you' -
In the United States, Trump warned Saturday that the country was entering "a time that's going to be very horrendous".

"This will probably be the toughest week," he said. "There will be a lot of death."

But he insisted that the world's largest economy could not remain shut down forever, saying: "I've said it from the beginning -- the cure cannot be worse than the problem."

New York state, the US epicentre, saw 594 deaths in a single day Sunday, slightly down from the previous day, but Governor Andrew Cuomo said it was too early to tell whether it was a "blip".

"We won't know for the next few days, does it go up, does it go down."

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Cuomo had warned Saturday that the worst was yet to come and that already strained hospitals were not prepared, while New York City appealed for licensed medical personnel to volunteer their services.

"Anyone who's not already in this fight, we need you," Mayor Bill de Blasio said.

Trump said 1,000 military personnel, mostly doctors and nurses, would be deployed to help in the city, which he described as "the hottest of all the hot spots".

- 'Better to die from the virus than starve' -
Several Western countries including the US have encouraged the use of masks in public despite earlier saying only carers needed to cover their faces -- a U-turn that has angered and confused some citizens.

The advice came after some studies suggested the new coronavirus could be spread through speaking and breathing, not just coughing and sneezing.

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The World Health Organization is reviewing its guidance but has said it worries that masks could give "a false sense of security", leading people to be more casual about hand washing and social distancing.

Governments have rolled out massive, unprecedented stimulus programmes to ease the pain caused by the virus lockdowns, but economists have warned that the crisis could worsen poverty levels with millions of jobs lost.

Iran, whose economy has suffered the double blow of the virus and punishing US sanctions, said it would allow "low-risk" economic activity to resume as daily infection rates fell for a fifth straight day.

Some people in poor countries are chafing against the curfews that are destroying their livelihoods.

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"How can anyone stay home without anything to eat?" asked Garcia Landu, a motorcycle taxi driver in Angola's bustling seaside capital Luanda.

"Better to die of this disease or a gunshot than to starve to death," he said as he ventured out to try to earn a living in defiance of government-ordered restrictions.

Elsewhere in Africa, Ethiopia reported its first two deaths as officials ramped up testing to get a clearer picture of the outbreak there.

And Greece has placed two migrant camps -- where thousands of asylum seekers live in dire conditions -- under lockdown, with the UN's International Organization for Migration warning of the "grave risk" the virus poses to such communities.

The latest high profile figure to succumb to the disease was Mahmud Jibril, the former head of the Libyan government that overthrew longtime dictator Moamer Kadhafi in 2011.

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