Germany extends Covid-19 lockdown, with restrictions gradually lifting

Germany is extending its coronavirus shutdown by three weeks until March 28, but easing some restrictions to allow nonessential stores and other businesses to reopen in areas with relatively low infection rates.

After about nine hours of talks, Chancellor Angela Merkel and the governors of the country’s 16 states agreed Wednesday to measures aimed at balancing concern over the impact of more contagious coronavirus variants with a growing clamor for a return to a more normal life.

The first moves have already been made: many elementary students returned to school last week. And on Monday, hairdressers opened after a 2 ½-month break. Current lockdown rules were set to run through Sunday.

On Wednesday, Merkel and the state governors—who in highly decentralized Germany have the power to impose and lift restrictions—set out a phased plan that allows for some further relaxation of restrictions.

“These should be steps toward opening but at the same time steps that do not set us back,” Merkel told reporters in Berlin. “There are a great many examples in Europe of a dramatic third wave.”

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She pledged that “spring 2021 will be different from spring a year ago.”

Regions where infection rates are relatively low, though not as low as previously envisioned, will be able to open nonessential stores, museums and other facilities on a limited basis.

Most stores have been closed nationwide since Dec. 16. Restaurants, bars, sports and leisure facilities have been closed since Nov. 2 and hotels are allowed only to accommodate business travelers.

When they last conferred on Feb. 10, Merkel and the governors set a target of 35 weekly new cases per 100,000 inhabitants before letting small stores, museums and other businesses reopen. The aim is to enable reliable contact-tracing.

But reaching that target soon appeared increasingly unrealistic as cases of the more contagious variant first detected in Britain increased, with overall infections creeping slightly higher. The cases-per-week number, which peaked at nearly 200 per 100,000 inhabitants just before Christmas, has been stalled above 60 in recent days.

Wednesday’s decisions opened up the possibility of reopening more businesses at various stages above the 35 target, though they included an “emergency brake” mechanism that would see the restrictions now in place reimposed if the infection level if the weekly infection level exceeds 100 per 100,000 residents on three consecutive days.

On Wednesday, the Robert Koch Institute, Germany’s national disease control center, said an analysis of nearly 25,000 samples found that the British variant accounted for about 46% of cases last week — up from 22% two weeks earlier.

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Germany has seen the number of deaths from COVID-19 and people in intensive care decline in recent weeks.

But it has been struggling to ramp up its vaccination drive, which has drawn widespread criticism for being too slow, even as the supply of vaccines improves. German lawmakers have ditched plans for hefty fines for people who skip the vaccine queue.

As of Tuesday, 5.3% of the population had been given a first vaccine dose and 2.7% had received two doses.

The disease control center said Wednesday that 9,019 new coronavirus cases were reported over the past 24 hours, bringing the total so far to 2.46 million. There were another 418 deaths in the nation of 83 million, raising Germany’s death toll to 70,881.

Legislative elections take place in Ivory Coast on Saturday overshadowed by a figure in distant Europe – former president Laurent Gbagbo.

Nearly a decade has passed since Gbagbo was forced out of office by today’s president Alassane Ouattara before being flown to The Hague to face war crimes charges.

Acquitted since then but living in Brussels pending an appeal, Gbagbo plans to come home, thanks to an olive branch offered by his erstwhile rival.

His Ivorian Popular Front (FPI) party has ended a years-long electoral boycott, becoming the engine behind an alliance battling for seats in the National Assembly.

The elections “mark the return of Laurent Gbagbo and his political organisation in institutional politics,” said Gbagbo’s eldest son, Michel, a university academic running in a constituency in Abidjan.

“It has to be seen as the return to calmer democratic life and lasting peace,” he said optimistically.

Ouattara overture

Ouattara, 79, ignited political unrest last year when he announced he would seek a third term in office – a scheme that critics said sidestepped constitutional limits.

Clashes claimed 87 lives and left nearly 500 people injured, while most of the opposition snubbed the October 31 ballot.

Ouattara won by a landslide – but to his critics, the victory had scant credibility and the country remained deep in crisis.

Seeking a way forward, Ouattara reached out to Gbagbo, signalling his assent for his return home and issuing him with a diplomatic passport.

The runup to Saturday’s vote has seen a jolt run through Ivorian politics as the well-organised FPI strives to get out the vote.

Thousands of supporters wearing T-shirts with Gbagbo’s face took part in a campaign launch rally in Yopougon last Saturday.

“Gbagbo yesterday, Gbagbo today, Gbagbo tomorrow – Gbagbo forever, or else nothing,” were the words on a poster.

The pro-Gbagbo alliance, Together for Democracy and Sovereignty (EDS), is fielding candidates across most of the country.

The left-leaning coalition has forged an unprecedented electoral deal with the biggest centre-right party – the Democratic Party of the Ivory Coast (PDCI) headed by Henri Konan Bedie, a former president and former Ouattara ally.

The self-described goal is to win enough legislative seats to prevent Ouattara and his RHDP party from “consolidating (their) absolute power.”

The RHDP won a thumping majority in the December 2016 legislative elections with 167 out of 255 seats.

“We don’t share the same ideology” with the EDS, said Djedri N’Goran, a senior PDCI official.

“But whether you like it or not, Gbagbo has an aura – there are whole areas, including Abidjan, where it’s ‘Gbagbo or nothing’.”


Gbagbo was president from 2000 to 2010, a time of turmoil, division and economic destruction in this major cocoa and coffee producer.

He was ousted by force of arms in April 2011 after a months-long conflict that claimed several thousand lives, sparked by his refusal to accept electoral defeat at Ouattara’s hands.

His long trial at the International Criminal Court in The Hague was over charges that he abetted the post-electoral violence.

Despite Gbagbo’s turbulent record, he remains for many Ivorians a plucky and inspirational figure, said political analyst Rodrigue Kone.

He likened Gbagbo’s odyssey to that of “a poor child fighting the bourgeois system represented by leaders from aristocratic families.”

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Reconciliation Minister Kouadio Konan Bertin last month paid tribute to Gbagbo, 75, as “a major player” in national politics, “whose views should be taken into account.”

Exactly when Gbagbo will make his return is unclear.

The ICC has authorised him to make foreign trips if the host country accepts him, pending the outcome of the appeal, which is due by March 31.

He previously said he hoped to return in December, but his increasingly frustrated supporters now say it will be in mid-March and have set up a committee to prepare a spectacular welcome.