Police have barred the public from St Peter’s Square and the Vatican took measures to limit infections inside the city state and mitigate the economic fallout outside. During the audience, Pope Francis was surrounded by a handful of priest translators following medical advice by sitting about 3ft apart in his private library. He then sent out special prayers for prisoners, the sick and hospital personnel caring for them, livestreaming his weekly catechism lesson rather than delivering it in person.
It provided a surreal scene given the whole point of the general audience – a tradition that dates to the time of St John XXIII – is to bring the pope into contact with ordinary people at least once a week.
Under normal circumstances the Wednesday event 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 today the square was deserted and police barred access to St Peter’s Basilica to anyone but individuals seeking to pray.
The Vatican shelved plans for a papal trip to Indonesia, East Timor and Papua New Guinea later this year, which had never officially been confirmed.
The pontiff himself is thought to have tested negative for the virus last week after appearing to have a cold during an Ash Wednesday service.
He cancelled a series of events because of his illness, sparking alarm after he had been pictured hugging and kissing worshippers in St Peter’s Basilica.
Italy is the European epicentre of the outbreak, with more than 10,000 positive cases.
And with 631 dead, Italy’s fatality rate is running at more than 6 percent – far higher than other countries.
Officials attribute the high death toll to Italy’s aged population, the second-oldest in the world outside Japan.
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The Vatican, a 108-acre 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, Pope Francis would be at high risk for complications were he to get the virus.
The Vatican has cancelled 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.
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