Thousands protest amid global anger against COVID restrictions

People take to the streets in Australia, France, Italy and the UK in protests against lockdowns and vaccine pass schemes.

Anti-COVID protest in France
A protester holds a placard that reads "Freedom" during a demonstration against COVID restrictions [Benoit Tessier/Reuters]

Tens of thousands of people across several countries, including France and Italy, have protested against anti-COVID measures, with the French police using tear gas and water cannon to disperse protesters in the capital Paris.

In France, an estimated 160,000 took to the streets in nationwide protests against President Emmanuel Macron’s health pass that will drastically curtail access to restaurants and public spaces for unvaccinated people.

“Freedom, freedom”, chanted demonstrators in France, carrying placards denouncing “Macron, Tyrant”, “Big Pharma shackles freedom” or saying “No to the pass of shame”.

A similar scheme, called “green pass”, has sparked angry demonstrations across Italy. People in Rome, Naples and Turin chanted “freedom” and “down with the dictatorship” over plans for the so-called “green pass”.

The certificate will be needed from early next month to eat in restaurants and visit cinemas among other indoor activities.
Many people gathered without wearing masks – but the turnout was lower than expected.

Thousands of people have also protested in London, against what they describe as an erosion of their civil liberties.

Demonstrators say the UK government’s track and trace app is limiting their movements, with more than 600,000 told to self-isolate in one week alone this month. The protests come a week after most Coronavirus restrictions in England were lifted.

Earlier, dozens of protesters were arrested after an unauthorised march in Sydney, Australia’s largest city. Organisers had dubbed the protest a “freedom” rally. Attendees carried signs and banners reading “Wake up Australia” and “Drain the Swamp”.

Heidi Larson, a professor of anthropology, risk and decision science at the department of infectious disease epidemiology at the London School of Hygiene and Tropical Medicine, told Al Jazeera that the health pass “makes a lot of sense”.

“And ironically for those who want their freedoms, the vaccine can allow different freedoms,” she said.

“When you think about it, the options to this pass is that we close restaurants, we stop large gatherings. We have to give somewhere if we want to get ahead of this virus,” Larson said.

Gabriel Scally, a visiting professor of public health at the University of Bristol, told Al Jazeera that there was nothing new to the opposition to the pandemic measures.

“I think these rallies are relatively small. All the way through the pandemic, we have seen small groups of people who have taken to the streets to express their opposition to various things,” he said.

“Some believe that the virus does not exist, that COVID-19 doesn’t exist. Some think that it’s a conspiracy from all sorts of people, including Bill Gates…

“It isn’t anything new. There has been opposition to vaccines in history. It’s new and people are dealing with various issues. There are always a small group of people who are opposed.”

French health pass

Legislators in France’s senate are debating the bill on Saturday after the lower house of parliament approved it on Friday.

French virus infections are spiking and hospitalisations are rising anew.

The government is trying to speed up vaccination to protect vulnerable populations and hospitals and avoid new lockdowns.

Most French adults are fully vaccinated and polls indicate a majority of French people support the new measures.

But not everyone. Protesters chanting “Liberty! Liberty!” marched through Paris in one of multiple demonstrations planned on Saturday.

Last weekend, more than 100,000 people protested across France against the measures.

They included far-right politicians and activists as well as some others angry at President Emmanuel Macron for various reasons.

Separately, in Indonesia and the UK, governments have pressed ahead with the easing of restrictions even in the face of surging infections.

Meanwhile, about 5,000 people demonstrated in Athens, carrying placards touting slogans such as, “Don’t touch our children”, according to an AFP journalist at the scene.

In Sydney, demonstrators pelted officers with pot plants and bottles of water as they defied a month-long stay-at-home order, a day after authorities suggested the restrictions could remain in place until October.

New South Wales state Premier Gladys Berejiklian said she was “utterly disgusted” by the protesters whose “selfish actions have compromised the safety of all of us”.

Police said they issued nearly 100 fines and arrested 57 people. In Melbourne, meanwhile, six people were arrested, police said.

Anti-vaccine demonstrators shout slogans during a protest against coronavirus disease (COVID-19) vaccinations in Athens, Greece [Costas Baltas/Reuters]
Source: Al Jazeera and news agencies