A family walk on Madison Avenue wearing protective masks during the coronavirus pandemic on April 08, 2020 in New York City. Photo: AFP

Christians celebrated Easter Sunday under coronavirus lockdown in many countries with church pews empty and the pope on live stream, as the US death toll from the disease passed 20,000.

At the climax of Holy Week for the planet’s two billion-plus Christians, congregations were shuttered at home to avoid spreading the pathogen that has infected about 1.8 million worldwide.

Pope Francis was set to break with centuries of tradition by taking his Easter mass online, with Saint Peter’s Square – packed every year with worshippers – left deserted.

The US, with around a fifth of the more than 100,000 total COVID-19 deaths, topped the list for both fatalities and numbers of declared cases, according to a tally maintained by Baltimore-based Johns Hopkins University.

Italy, the hardest-hit country in Europe, has recorded more than 19,000 confirmed virus deaths – second only to the US, which has a population five times its size.

But hopes began to rise in Western Europe and heavily infected parts of America that the pandemic was peaking.

Many were looking to China’s Wuhan as life began to return to normal while officials lifted stay-inside restrictions.

But for much of the world, from India to France, strict lockdowns were still in force.

In Jerusalem, Christians were prevented from gathering for the Easter service and all cultural sites were closed, regardless of their religious affiliation or cultural significance.

Also at one church in the Philippines, photos of parishioners were taped onto the empty pews.

The hardest-hit countries of Europe, and the centers of infection in the US were seeing signs of infection rates leveling off.

Numbers from Spain offered a shred of hope Saturday: 510 new deaths, a dip in fatalities for the third day in a row.

Newly reported coronavirus deaths in France also fell by one-third from Friday to 635.

Italy meanwhile said the number of daily deaths there were starting to level off – though the government resisted pressure to lift its lockdown, extending confinement measures until May 3.

But Britain on Saturday recorded its second highest daily toll, as virus-stricken Prime Minister Boris Johnson made “very good progress” after being released from intensive care, a spokeswoman said.

Although global infections stand at 1.79 million, according to an AFP tally of official counts, the real number is thought to be much higher, with many countries only testing the most serious cases.

Many experts and the World Health Organization are cautioning countries against lifting lockdown measures too quickly.

From the crowded slums of Mexico City, Nairobi and Mumbai to conflict hot spots in the Middle East, there are fears that the worst is yet to come for the world’s poorest.