Thousands of people have marched in Germany’s capital to protest against measures imposed to stem the coronavirus pandemic, saying those restrictions violated people’s rights and freedoms.
The crowds rallying in central Berlin on Saturday comprised an array of groups including opponents of vaccinations and conspiracy theorists, among others. There was also a small far right presence with some marchers carrying Germany’s black, white and red imperial flag.
Organisers initially hoped half a million protesters would join the demonstration but police estimated about 17,000 had gathered. A handful of counter-demonstrators also gathered, many under the banner “Grandmas against the right”, and shouted “Nazis out” at those taking part.
Police ended the main demonstration after determining that organisers were not able to ensure health and safety regulations were being followed. They also said they launched legal action against the organisers over “non-respect of hygiene rules”.
The demonstration came as German officials fear a second wave of the pandemic, which has so far killed 9,154 people in the country amid 210,000 confirmed coronavirus cases.
The relatively low death rate – nearly one-fourth of the United Kingdom, which has a smaller population – has been seen as a result of Germany’s early imposition of strict measures.
But protesters on Saturday said those restrictions had trampled their rights. They whistled and called “freedom” and “resistance”, with some shouting, “the biggest conspiracy theory is the coronavirus pandemic”.
Others chanted “we are the second wave”.
Few protesters wore a mask or respected the 1.5-metre (five-foot) physical distancing requirement, according to media reports, despite police calling on them via megaphone to do so.
The demonstration followed a rallying call from Michael Ballweg, an entrepreneur and political outsider who has organised similar rallies in Stuttgart and is running to become that city’s mayor.
Fear of second wave
Reporting from Berlin, Al Jazeera’s Dominic Kane said the demonstrations are being felt most in “ministerial circles”, with federal and state officials fearing the gathering may catalyse a rise in new infections that has already begun, with new daily case numbers the highest since May.
“When they see so many people, so many strangers, congregating in the centre of Berlin, and flouting the rules, they worry very much that there will be a second wave,” he said.
On Saturday, Germany’s Health Minister Jens Spahn criticised the rally attendees on Twitter: “Yes, demonstrations should be allowed even amid the pandemic. But not like this.”
Physical distancing, health and safety rules and wearing protective face masks serve to protect everyone, Spahn said, adding that only “sense, perseverance and team spirit” will help overcome the pandemic.
Some politicians took a less measured approach, with Saskia Esken of the Social Democrats, a junior coalition partner in Chancellor Angela Merkel’s government, blasting the demonstrators as “Covidiots”.
“No distancing, no mask. They are not only putting at risk our health but also our success against the pandemic as well as economic recovery, education and society. Irresponsible!,” she wrote on Twitter.
Also taking aim at the protesters was Jan Redmann, regional head of Merkel’s Christian Democrats in the eastern state of Brandenburg.
“A thousand new infections a day still and in Berlin there are protests against anti-virus measures? We can no longer allow ourselves these dangerous absurdities,” Redmann said.
The German government, meanwhile, has been easing lockdown measures since late April, with physical distancing rules remaining in place, as does a requirement to wear masks on public transit and in shops.
“The very rules against which these protesters are protesting are much less strong than they were during the height of the pandemic,” Al Jazeera’s Kane said. “That’s why many Germans are wondering what exactly are these protesters protesting against when the rules have been relaxed for so long.”