Virus lockdown hits Vatican as pope livestreams audience

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Police officers wearing masks patrol an empty St. Peter's Square at the Vatican, Wednesday, March 11, 2020. Pope Francis held his weekly general audience in the privacy of his library as the Vatican implemented Italys drastic coronavirus lockdown measures, barring the general public from St. Peters Square and taking precautions to limit the spread of infections in the tiny city state.For most people, the new coronavirus causes only mild or moderate symptoms, such as fever and cough. For some, especially older adults and people with existing health problems, it can cause more severe illness, including pneumonia. (AP Photo/Andrew Medichini)

ROME – Pope Francis held his weekly general audience in the privacy of his library Wednesday as the Vatican implemented Italy’s drastic virus lockdown measures.

Police barred the general public from St. Peter’s Square and the Vatican took measures to limit infections inside the city state and mitigate the economic fallout outside.

Francis sent out special prayers for prisoners, the sick and hospital personnel caring for them, delivering his weekly catechism lesson via livestream rather than in person. The scene was somewhat surreal given the whole point of a general audience — a tradition that dates to the time of St. John XXIII — was to bring the pope into contact with ordinary folk at least once a week.

And under normal circumstances, the Wednesday appointment brings tens of thousands of people into St. Peter’s Square or the Vatican auditorium for an hour-long catechism lesson delivered in a variety of languages. But on Wednesday, the square was empty and police barred access to St. Peter’s Basilica to anyone but individuals seeking to pray.

For most, the coronavirus causes only mild or moderate symptoms, such as fever and cough. But for a few, especially older adults and people with existing health problems, it can cause more severe illnesses, including pneumonia. More than 119,000 people have been infected worldwide and over 4,200 have died.

Italy is the European epicenter of the outbreak, with more than 10,000 positive cases. With 631 dead, Italy’s fatality rate is running at more than 6% — far higher than other countries. Officials attribute the high toll to Italy's aged population, the second-oldest in the world outside Japan.

The Vatican, a 108-acre (nearly 45-hectare) city-state in the heart of Rome, has taken Italy's lead and imposed drastic measures to contain the virus after one person in Vatican City was infected, another who attended a Vatican conference tested positive and five people were placed on precautionary quarantine. At 83 and with part of a lung removed during a respiratory illness when he was a young man, Francis would be at high risk for complications were he to get the virus.

The Vatican has canceled meetings and conferences, limited travel among its personnel and closed the Vatican Museums to the public — essentially closing off its main source of income for the foreseeable future. On Wednesday came the predicted cancellation of Francis' rumored trip to Indonesia, East Timor and Papua New Guinea later this year.