BERLIN: German police on Saturday stopped a march in the country’s capital by thousands of people opposed to the coronavirus restrictions, including face masks, as several other European cities saw similar protests.
With new COVID-19 cases on the rise, European nations are starting to tighten controls while trying to avoid the major lockdowns imposed earlier this year to contain the outbreak that has killed more than 800,000 worldwide.
Across the globe, governments are struggling to revive economies already battered by the pandemic while managing public frustration over new restrictions and masks to curb infections.
In Germany, around 18,000 people had massed in Berlin’s iconic Brandenburg Gate — the biggest of all marches so far — before the rally was forced to stop due to a police injunction because many were not respecting social distancing measures.
The mass protest against pandemic restrictions had been allowed to go ahead after a bitter legal battle.
“The minimum distancing is not being respected by most (of the demonstrators) despite repeated requests,” the police said. “There is no other option than to break up the gathering.”
‘Merkel must go!’
Several thousands stayed on to protest after the announcement, chanting “resistance” and a small group clashed with police, tossing bottles and rocks. Two people were arrested, police said.
Protesters waved German flags and shouted “Merkel must go!”, a chant often used by the far-right Alternative for Germany (AfD) party against Chancellor Angela Merkel.
“I’m not an extreme right-wing sympathiser, I’m here to defend our fundamental freedoms,” said Stefan, a 43-year-old Berlin resident with a shaved head and a T-shirt with the words “Thinking helps” written in large print.
“We’re here to say: we have to be careful! Coronavirus crisis or not, we must defend our freedoms,” Christina Holz, a 22-year-old student, told AFP.
Anti-mask protesters also gathered in Zurich.
‘Not so dangerous’?
In London, more than a 1,000 protesters gathered at the Trafalgar Square landmark, many holding home-made banners.
One called for an “End to medical tyranny”; another read “No to mandatory vaccines” while one man waved a placard declaring “Masks are muzzles”.
Around 300 people protested peacefully in Paris to denounce the government’s decision to make masks obligatory in all public places as cases rise in the French capital.
Protesters, some waving placards stating “Stop the lies”, were quickly surrounded by police who handed out 135 euro ($160) fines to those not wearing masks.
“There is no scientific proof of the usefulness of wearing a mask outside,” said Anais, a sociology student.
“COVID-19 is not so dangerous, it mainly kills people over the age of 60.”
‘Exponential’ rise in coronavirus cases
The pandemic has killed more than 838,000 people worldwide since surfacing in China late last year, and more than 24.7 million cases have been registered. The United States has recorded the highest number of deaths with 181,779.
US President Donald Trump and Brazil’s Jair Bolsonaro were among global leaders who initially played down the gravity of the pandemic while others have dismissed the need for social distancing measures.
Many governments now hope tighter mask rules will offset the need for a return to economically-devastating lockdowns, though the French government said it could not rule out new stay-at-home orders.
France on Friday said there had been an “exponential” rise in coronavirus cases with more than 7,000 new infections in 24 hours.
Anti-vaxxers, conspiracy theorists
Saturday’s rally in Berlin came as coronavirus cases continue to rise in Germany, with daily new infection numbers reaching highs not seen since April.
At the start of August, a similar German “anti-corona” march in Berlin took place with 20,000 protesters — a mix of the extreme left and right, anti-vaccination campaigners, conspiracy theorists, and self-described “free thinkers”.
Police had vowed to turn out in force and strictly monitor compliance with mask-wearing and social distancing at the protest.
Berlin police chief Barbara Slowik had warned that if the demonstrators did not adhere to virus safety rules, police would clear the area “very quickly”.
“We will not be able or willing to watch tens of thousands assemble and create infection risks,” she said.
Merkel says ‘it’s still serious’
Berlin city authorities had previously decided not to allow the Saturday demonstration to go ahead, fearing that the estimated 22,000 protesters would not keep a distance of 1.5 metres (five feet) apart or comply with face mask requirements.
But on the eve of the demo, Berlin’s administrative court sided with the demonstrators, saying there was no indication that organisers would “deliberately ignore” social distancing rules and endanger public health.
Merkel and the leaders of Germany’s 16 federal states on Thursday introduced tougher coronavirus restrictions to curb the pandemic, including a minimum 50 euro ($59) fine for people caught not wearing face masks where one is compulsory.
“We will have to live with this virus for a long time to come,” Merkel warned. “It is still serious. Please continue to take it seriously.”