Protesters clashed with police in Germany and Croatia and some took to the streets in Switzerland on Saturday as new lockdowns were introduced in France, Poland and Ukraine to battle a third wave of coronavirus.
Police used pepper spray to disperse people protesting against coronavirus curbs in the German city of Kassel in one of the country’s largest such rallies so far this year.
The protest attracted between 15,000 and 20,000 demonstrators, a Kassel police spokesman told AFP, making it one of the largest such rallies so far this year.
Several groups, most of them far-right opponents of government’s regulations to fight the pandemic, had called for protests Saturday in cities across the country.
In Berlin, some 1,800 police officers were on standby for possible riots, but only a few dozen protesters assembled at the city’s landmark Brandenburg Gate.
In Switzerland, thousands of demonstrators descended on the small northern Swiss town of Liestal, while others gathered in Basel, to demand an end to measures that have shut restaurants and other venues for months.
In Zagreb, the Croatian capital, protesters also gathered to rail against coronavirus.
Meanwhile, in Paris, images showed eerily quiet streets as non-essential shops in the city were closed from Saturday for at least a month to try to grapple with rising infection rates.
In total, a third of France’s population woke up to new restrictions.
In Poland most shops will be shut for the next three weeks along with hotels and cinemas, with similar measures introduced in Ukraine’s capital Kiev.
Several thousand people gathered at the main protest site on a square in Kessel’s city centre, packed closely together without wearing face masks, an AFP reporter saw.
Scuffles erupted when a group of demonstrators tried to break through a police cordon to join up with other protesters, resulting in shoving and prompting officers to use pepper spray.
‘This is not what a peaceful protest looks like,’ North Hesse police tweeted.
Officers had used ‘pepper spray and batons’ against protesters, police said, adding that there had been ‘repeated attacks’ against emergency service workers.
‘We don’t tolerate such attacks,’ they wrote, saying they had water cannon on stand by.
The protest was called by the ‘Querdenker’ or Lateral Thinkers movement, an umbrella group that has organised some of Germany’s largest ‘anti-corona’ demonstrations since the start of the pandemic.
The movement has drawn in people from the far-left, conspiracy theorists, anti-vaxxers and right-wing extremists.
Some of them don’t believe the pandemic is real, while others claim the curbs imposed to rein in the coronavirus infringe on their civil rights.
Some demonstrators in Kassel held up signs that read ‘End the lockdown’ and ‘Corona rebels’, or carried heart-shaped balloons.
Many also waved ‘Querdenker’ flags from different parts of the country, suggesting people had travelled to join the rally.
The founder of the Querdenker movement, Michael Ballweg, in late December urged supporters to halt their protests until the spring.
The Kassel protest’s organisers had registered for up to 6,000 participants.
Several other German cities saw similar rallies last weekend, but on a smaller scale.
In Switzerland, between 3,000 and 5,000 people, many wearing white protection jumpsuits, gathered in the small town in the Basel canton for what they have called a “Silent Protest”, according to estimates by journalists on site.
The protesters, many not wearing facemasks, held signs with messages reading “Enough!”, “Vaccines kill” and “Let love guide you, not fear”.
They accuse the Swiss government of using dictatorial powers to impose restrictions aimed at reining in Covid-19 transmission.
The demonstration, which had police authorisation, is the latest in a series of public protests across the country in recent months, including one earlier this month in the small, picturesque town of Chur that drew over 4,000 people.
Organisers of Saturday’s demonstration in Liestal, which has a population of around 14,500 people, said in a statement they expected around 5,000 people to take part, but urged more to join.
They complained in a statement ahead of the march that the Swiss government had taken the country “hostage” over a year ago.
Parisians packed trains leaving the capital and crammed into shops ahead of the new partial lockdown.
The mayor of Yerres, just outside the capital, told AFP he had told businesses there to remain open, defying the ‘totally incomprehensible’ restrictions.
‘Why would we catch Covid more in a shoe store than a bookshop?’ he asked.
Bookshops are considered essential under the new measures, along with florists, chocolate shops and cobblers.
The pandemic is still speeding up worldwide, with the number of new Covid-19 infections rising globally by 14 percent over the past week, according to data.
In Brazil, Rio de Janeiro’s famed beaches have been closed as the city’s mayor warned of a ‘very critical’ situation, with 95 percent of intensive care units occupied at public hospitals.
President Jair Bolsonaro, who has railed against stay-at-home measures and face masks, criticised the measure.
‘Vitamin D is a way to prevent the virus from seriously affecting you. And where do you get vitamin D? From the sun. Such hypocrisy,’ said the far-right leader.
The row over AstraZeneca’s coronavirus vaccine meanwhile shows no signs of abating, with EU chief Ursula von der Leyen threatening to halt exports of the jab if the bloc does not receive its deliveries first.
Von der Leyen said Anglo-Swedish pharma giant AstraZeneca had delivered only 30 percent of the 90 million vaccine doses it had promised for the first quarter of the year.
The company has blamed production delays at its EU plants, but European officials are furious that AstraZeneca has been able to deliver its UK contract in full while falling short on the continent.
‘We have the option of banning a planned export. That’s the message to AstraZeneca: you fulfil your contract with Europe first before you start delivering to other countries,’ von der Leyen told Germany’s Funke media group.
The AstraZeneca shortfall has complicated an already stuttering vaccine rollout in Europe, but the drug-maker has also had to contend with safety concerns.
Worries that the AstraZeneca jab may cause blood clots had seen more than a dozen countries pause its use recently.
Several European countries including Germany and Italy resumed AstraZeneca vaccinations Friday after following an all-clear from EU regulators and the WHO.
France also brought the jab back into use – but just hours later, the national health regulator recommended it be given only to the over-55s, given the reported blood clots were only seen in younger people.
Scandinavian nations Denmark, Norway, Sweden and Finland have all said they want more information before deploying the vaccine again.
World Health Organization vaccine safety experts said ‘available data do not suggest any overall increase in clotting conditions’ among vaccinated people.
Prime Minister Boris Johnson and his French counterpart Jean Castex both received a dose of AstraZeneca on Friday.
‘I literally did not feel a thing. It was very good, very quick,’ said Mr Johnson, who became seriously ill from Covid-19 last year.
In Pakistan meanwhile, Prime Minister Imran Khan tested positive for Covid-19 two days after receiving China’s Sinopharm vaccine.
German Chancellor Angela Merkel and Italian Prime Minister Mario Draghi committed to get the AstraZeneca vaccine soon.
With more than 400 million vaccine doses already injected globally as inoculation campaigns gain pace, organisers of the Tokyo Olympics have been hoping this summer’s pandemic-delayed Games could provide ‘proof of humanity’s triumph over the virus’.
But organisers meeting Saturday said they will bar overseas fans from the Games, meaning there will be little of the international party atmosphere that usually characterises the Olympics.
Signs of lockdown weariness have abounded in cities across the world, with protests against restrictions popping up in Vienna, Sofia and Montreal on Friday.
Some 20,000 people were expected at a demonstration in the German city of Kassel on Saturday, raising fears it could turn into a superspreader event.
Today’s protests come after government scientists warned that a surge in Covid cases across Europe could see summer holidays cancelled if a third wave spreads to Britain.
Outbreaks of the South African variant in countries throughout the continent is causing particular concern, sparking calls for tougher travel restrictions.
As a result, some experts fear European getaways in May, and potentially in the subsequent months, much anticipated by millions of Britons, are now a doubt.
While Britain’s vaccination roll-out has been a huge success, with a record 660,276 jabs administered on Friday amid falling cases and deaths, the picture on the continent looks different.
The EU has overseen a shambolic vaccine distribution programme and the number of positive tests is on the up in countries such as France, Spain, Germany and Italy.
The worry for British experts is that such scenes earlier in the pandemic have often foreshadowed a similar scenario in the UK.
A government source told the Times: ‘It’s a fact that when waves one and two hit Europe they hit us afterwards.’