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Italy braces for long lockdown as toll nears China's

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Rome (AFP)

Italy braced Thursday for an extended lockdown that could see the economy suffer its biggest shock since World War II from a pandemic that has killed almost as many people as it has in China.

The country's toll from the novel coronavirus reached 2,978 after it recorded 475 new deaths on Wednesday -- the highest official one-day figure in the world.

China reported no new deaths for the first time on Thursday and Italy was on course to overtake its 3,245 fatalities later in the day.

COVID-19 infections are yet to plateau despite the Italian government's best efforts.

Army trucks delivered freshly-made coffins Thursday to a cemetery in the northern Italian city of Bergamo that suddenly finds itself at the global heart of the unfolding disaster.

Burials were being conducted every half hour to avoid contagion through crowds.

Masked undertakers wrapped from head to toe in white suits carted the coffins on gurneys to speed up the process.

"Use your common sense and act with utmost caution," Prime Minister Giuseppe Conte told Italians.

"We are not underestimating anything and always acting based on the worst-case scenario."

- Overwhelming support -

Conte has found overwhelming support from Italians for a lockdown that -- while not as draconian as China's quarantine of Wuhan's Hubei province -- seemed unimaginable for a Western democracy until this month.

A poll published in La Repubblica newspaper found 47 percent viewed the closure of most business and all shools and public institutions "positively".

Another 47 percent viewed them "very positively" and just four percent said they were opposed.

Conte has layered on the measures in segments and some of the strictest ones -- such as the closure of all shops except for grocery stores and pharmacies -- had been due to expire next Wednesday.

But the Italian leader told La Repubblica that there was no question that everything "must be extended beyond the original deadline".

This also means shools will not re-open on April 3 and working parents will have to find ways to look after their kids while working from home for many more weeks or months.

"At the moment, there are no other far-reaching restrictive measures being considered," said Conte.

"But if our prohibitions are not respected, we will have to act."

- Economic shock -

Italy is imposing 206-euro ($222) fines for anyone found wandering the streets without a valid excuse such as grocery shopping or getting to and from work.

Police in Rome read periodic instructions out of megaphones for everyone to "stay home and maintain distance" from each other.

Some stores now also order shoppers to put on disposable plastic gloves.

The northern region of Emilia-Romagna took the extra step late Wednesday of banning jogging and walks that the national government in Rome had encouraged for health reasons.

That means people in and around Bologna can only cycle or walk to get to work or shop.

The monumental hit all these measures are causing the economy saw Conte's team put together a 25-billion-euro package designed to help the worst affected industries.

The tourism operators' union Thursday said it expected the number of visitors to Italy drop to levels last seen in the mid-1960s.

But Conte looked for the silver lining in the disaster.

The crisis has forced ministers to "make the biggest effort in dozens of years to simplify the investment process -- something that nobody (In Italy) has ever done," Conte said.

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