VATICAN CITY: Pope Francis has decided to deliver Sunday's (Mar 8) prayer by livestream and Italy called in retired doctors as the new coronavirus epidemic gathered strength and emptied streets in Europe's worst affected country.
The 83-year-old pontiff broke with centuries of tradition by enlisting the help of technology to keep crowds from descending on Saint Peter's Square for the traditional Angelus Prayer.
"The prayer will be broadcast via livestream by Vatican News and on screens in Saint Peter's Square," the Vatican said in a statement.
It had originally promised to review the Argentine-born pope's schedule "to avoid the dissemination" of the new COVID-19 disease.
The Vatican appears to believe that the pope's absence from his traditional spot at the window will keep the crowds on the vast square down and the threat of contagion low.
The pope himself has been out of action for more than a week with a cold.
The Vatican is in the process of unrolling unprecedented health precautions designed to keep the city state's 450 mostly elderly residents safe.
It recorded its first COVID-19 infection on Thursday and was awaiting the results of a test on another person who appeared at a Vatican-organised event last month.
That conference was also attended by Microsoft President Brad Smith and European Parliament President David Sassoli.
The Vatican said all those present were being notified about the test as a precaution.
COALITION LEADER GETS VIRUS
The Italian government finds itself at the forefront of the global fight against an epidemic that has convulsed the markets and paralysed global supply chains since first emerging in China late last year.
Ministers decided at an all-night emergency meeting to call in retired doctors as part of an effort to bolster the strained healthcare system with 20,000 additional staff.
Italy's death toll ballooned by a single-day record of 49 on Friday and now stands at 197 - the most outside China itself.
The head of the Italian ruling coalition's junior partner became the latest high-profile figure to confirm coming down with the new disease.
"I am fine," the Democratic Party's Nicola Zingaretti said on Facebook. "I will have to stay home for the next few days."
The accelerating spread of the illness emptied Italian train stations and turned usually thronged parts of Rome into a ghost town.
Many of the city's outdoor restaurants and cafes were either closed on Friday night or had free tables overseen by forlorn staff with little to do but chat.
The expansive street that runs from Rome's Colosseum along the Forum was deserted and the magnificent ruins stood in their natural splendour - and without being swarmed by tourists - on a sunny Saturday afternoon.
"FOCUS ON CONTAINMENT"
The sharp drop in visitor numbers is wreaking havoc with the Italian tourism industry and contributing to fears that the anaemic economy is about to tip back into recession.
But the government's most immediate concern is the threat of infections that had been largely contained to pockets of the richer north spreading to the poorer and the south where medical services are weaker.
The World Health Organization urged the Italian government on Friday to keep "a strong focus on containment measures".
The government said its medical recruitment drive should increase the number of intensive care beds from 5,000 to 7,500 in the coming days.
The number of Italians receiving intensive care treatment for COVID-19 reached 462 on Friday.
The total number of coronavirus infections grew to 4,636.
Italy's mortality rate now stands at a relatively high 4.25 per cent and may be explained by its older population which is more susceptible to the virus.
The death rate is 0.68 per cent in South Korea and 3.81 per cent in China.
"We should not forget that Italy has an older population than China - 44.3 years compared to an average of 37.4 years," Italian National Institute of Health head Silvio Brusaferro said.