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Pope Francis prays at Great Plague church as Italy toll mounts

Rome (AFP) - Pope Francis left Vatican City on Sunday to pray in a Rome cathedral for coronavirus victims as Italy's death toll hit a one-day high of 368.

The 83-year-old pontiff's unannounced visit to a church with a crucifix from the times of the Great Plague came with Italy's hospitals running out beds and the entire nation of 60 million under effective lockdown.

Only occasional joggers and a few locals carrying grocery bags could be seen on the streets of Rome in what has fast become Italy's biggest crisis in several generations.

Official data showed the number of fatalities in the Mediterranean country shooting up by 368 to 1,809 -- more than half of all the fatal cases recorded outside China.

The Vatican took the drastic step of cancelling Easter week celebrations that were set to begin on April 5 as the country braced for the worst.

Pope Francis has been suffering from a cold for more than two weeks and communicating with the world's 1.3 billion Catholics via livestream.

But the Vatican said the pontiff appeared at Rome's Santa Maria Maggiore basilica and then walked "on foot, as if on a pilgrimage" to the San Marcello al Corso church.

It explained that the pope selected the church because it holds a "miraculous crucifix which, in 1522, was carried in procession through city districts" to mark the end of the Great Plague.

The pope prayed for "the end of the pandemic that affects Italy and the world, imploring for the healing of the many sick, and remembering the many victims," the Vatican said.

- 'Getting worse' -

Milan's Lombardy region governor Attilio Fontana said the situation in areas around the Italian financial hub was only "getting worse".

"We are close to the point where we will no longer be able to resuscitate people because we will be out of intensive care unit beds," Fontana told Italy's Sky TG24 channel.

"We need those machines (doctors) use to ventilate lungs, artificial respirators that unfortunately we cannot find," Fontana said.

The Lombardy region has recorded 1,218 of the Italian deaths officially attributed to COVID-19 over the past three weeks -- more than the rest of Europe combined.

The region of 10 million -- slightly smaller but more economically productive than neighbouring Switzerland to the north -- also has 13,272 reported infections and 767 people in intensive care.

Milan mayor Beppe Sala said he had managed to secure shipments of surgical masks from China to help cover a growing shortage.

"Milan has always had excellent relations with the main Chinese cities and I made a few phone calls over the past few days in search of masks," the Milan mayor said.

"The first shipment arrived (Friday) and we will now distribute them to doctors, to our staff."

The European Commission also announced the imminent delivery of one million masks from Germany.

Yet the situation remained critical despite Lombardy enjoying a world-class healthcare system that has been praised by the World Health Organization for years.

- Curfew warning -

The governor of Venice's Veneto region to the east also called on "everyone to remain in isolation" to avoid putting hospitals under further strain.

"If you do not follow the rules, the healthcare system will crash and I will have to impose a curfew," Veneto governor Luca Zaia warned.

Prime Minister Giuseppe Conte insisted on Sunday that his government was paying "maximum attention" to the situation in the north.

His government put the finishing touches to a new crisis plan that reportedly includes family relief measures such as parental leave pay and help for the self-employed.

The government said it was also in discussion with banks about a suspension of some family mortgage payments.


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