Alarm in Germany as ‘corona demos’ take off
MUNICH: Angered by a slew of lockdown measures, purported vaccine plans or alleged state surveillance, thousands took to the streets on Saturday in Germany in a growing wave of demonstrations that has alarmed even Chancellor Angela Merkel. Initially starting as a handful of protesters decrying tough restrictions on public life to halt transmission of the coronavirus, the demonstrations have swelled in recent weeks to gatherings of thousands in major German cities. Huge numbers of anti-lockdown protesters, conspiracy theorists, anti-vaxxers or extremists massed across Germany again on Saturday, with more than 5,000 gathering in Stuttgart, at least 1,500 in Frankfurt and around 1,000 in Munich.
“Corona is fake”, claimed one poster held aloft in Stuttgart, “Isolation, Masks, Tracking, Vaccine — that’s a no go”, cried another. Police in Berlin made 200 arrests as scuffles broke out, while in Hamburg, conspiracy theorists
clashed with anti-lockdown protesters. The growing demonstrations have sparked comparison to the antiMuslim Pegida marches at the height of Europe’s refugee crisis in 2015, raising questions over whether the strong support that Merkel is currently enjoying due to her handling of the virus crisis could evaporate.
Just as it won popularity by fanning anti-migrant sentiment five years ago, the far-right AfD party is now openly encouraging protesters and repositioning itself as an anti-lockdown party. A recent poll commissioned by the Spiegel news magazine found that almost one in four Germans surveyed voiced “understanding” for the demonstrations. The development has shocked the political establishment, with Merkel reportedly telling the top brass of her centre-right CDU party of the “worrying” trend that may bear some hallmarks of Russia’s disinformation campaigns.
Germany in March took unprecedented measures to shut down public life. While a huge majority of Germans back the action, giving Merkel’s government a big boost in approval ratings, dissent is fomenting, particularly online where YouTube videos championing conspiracy theories or quack medical advice are attracting tens of thousands of views. Seeking to counter absurd claims, President Frank-Walter Steinmeier said that although he wasn’t a medical practitioner, he could safely suggest that the “uncomfortable and cumbersome face mask is more to be recommended than a tin-foil hat”. —AFP