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Face mask-clad commuters head to work through an underpass near Shinjuku station in Tokyo on April 9, 2020.

KAZUHIRO NOGI/AFP/Getty Images

A staggering 16.8 million Americans lost their jobs in just three weeks in a measure of how fast the coronavirus has brought world economies to their knees. Meanwhile, religious leaders around the globe Thursday urged people to celebrate Good Friday and Easter from the safety of their homes.

Governments warned that the hard-won gains against the scourge must not be jeopardized by relaxing physical distancing over the weekend. Across Europe, where Easter is one of the busiest travel times of the year, authorities set up roadblocks and otherwise discouraged family gatherings.

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A spike in deaths in Britain and New York and surges of reported new infections in Japan and in India’s congested cities made it clear 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 around 16,000.

“That is so shocking and painful and breathtaking, I don’t even have the words for it,” New York Governor Andrew Cuomo said, though he added that there are hopeful signs, including slowdowns in the number of people being admitted to hospital, moved to intensive care and placed on ventilators.

Medical workers using an improvised delivery system to drop off supplies at an emergency field hospital run by Samaritan's Purse and Mount Sinai Health System in New York's Central Park on April 8, 2020.

Misha Friedman/Getty Images

He said the onslaught of patients has not been as big as feared and hospitals are standing up to the strain so far. About 18,000 people were hospitalized, well short of the 90,000 hospital beds statewide, many of which were hurriedly lined up at a convention centre and a Navy ship docked in the city.

Worldwide, the number of dead rose past 90,000 and confirmed infections reached about 1.5 million, according to Johns Hopkins University, though the true numbers are believed to be much higher, in part because of different rules for counting the dead and cover-ups by some governments.

Numbers released Thursday by the U.S. government showed 6.6 million Americans applied for unemployment benefits last week, on top of more than 10 million in the two weeks before that. That amounts to about one in 10 U.S. workers – the biggest, fastest pileup of job losses since the world’s largest economy began keeping records in 1948.

And still more job cuts are expected. The U.S. unemployment rate in April could hit 15 per cent – a number not seen since the tail end of the Great Depression.

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Sharon Bridgeman, 57, of Kansas City, Mo., was laid off from her job two weeks ago at a non-profit that helps homeless people and is still waiting to be approved for unemployment benefits.

“I’m worried I may not have a job to go back to,” she said. “I’m also worried about the people I work with.”

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

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

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

Anthony Fauci, the top U.S. infectious-diseases expert, shot down hopes that warmer spring weather would bring an end to the crisis.

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“One should not assume that we are going to be rescued by a change in the weather,” he said. “You must assume that the virus will continue to do its thing.”

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

The virus “doesn’t take a day off for Good Friday or Easter Sunday,” said Archbishop John Wester of Santa Fe, N.M.

Still, other churches plan to move ahead with Easter, including in Texas, where Governor Greg Abbott declared religious gatherings “essential services.” A Houston church has installed hand-washing stations and rearranged the 1,000-person sanctuary to hold about 100 people with six or more feet between them.

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.

The British government is running ads urging people to “Stay Home, Save Lives” over the weekend. German Chancellor Angela Merkel emphasized that “even short trips inside Germany, to the seaside or the mountains or relatives, can’t happen over Easter.”

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Greece also tightened restrictions ahead of next week’s Orthodox Easter, increasing roadblocks, doubling fines for lockdown violations and banning travel between islands.

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

Elsewhere around the world, there were encouraging signs in France, where the national health agency saw indications the crisis is stabilizing, though more than 12,000 lives have been lost.

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 are still 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.

Japan recorded more than 500 new cases for the first time, a worrisome rise since it has the world’s oldest population and COVID-19 can be especially serious in the elderly.

Indonesia confirmed on Thursday the biggest daily jump in coronavirus infections since cases were first announced last month, with 337 new cases taking the total to 3,293, said a health ministry official, Achmad Yurianto.

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Senior international correspondent Mark MacKinnon reports from the usually bustling Westminster Bridge over the River Thames as the UK's coronavirus lockdown brings London almost to a halt. Prime Minister Boris Johnson spent his second night in hospital with COVID-19 on April 7. The Globe and Mail

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