Police have fired water cannon and tear gas to disperse protesters near the European Commission’s headquarters in Brussels after a protest involving some 50,000 people opposing COVID-19 restrictions turned violent.
Although Belgium announced a slight easing of coronavirus restrictions on Friday, despite record infections, the government also said people must have booster shots after five months to maintain the COVID-19 passes which allow them to access bars or cinemas.
The passes, which are mandatory for anyone wishing to enter a restaurant, museum and many other public places, have sparked fierce opposition among some Belgians.
In scenes reminiscent of similar clashes last November, when about 35,000 protesters took part in demonstrations that started peacefully but later turned violent, some streets in the Belgian capital were soon filled with tear gas on Sunday.
Some protesters let off fireworks as police advanced in force into a nearby park where large groups of demonstrators had gathered. Officers wearing body armour, helmets and carrying riot shields surrounded the water cannon.
Police said more than 60 people were arrested, with three officers and 12 demonstrators taken to hospital.
Protesters reject COVID ‘blackmail’
One demonstrator, standing on a stage, told the others to put up their hands, saying the protesters would not give up.
“I’m angry about the blackmail that the government is doing, mostly for the young people but for everybody, but mostly for the young people, they are really blackmailing that everybody has to go for the vaccine,” said Caroline van Landuyt, who had been vaccinated against COVID-19.
Belgium is in the midst of a fifth wave of COVID-19 infections, with the peak not expected for at least a couple of weeks. Some 89 percent of adults in Belgium are fully vaccinated, and 67 percent have now also received a booster shot.
“I was very angry that my children had to do have the vaccine. They want to travel, they want to do sports competitions, and they can’t do it without a vaccine, but they did not want to, it’s just blackmail,” she added.
News outlet RTL reported that masked demonstrators had smashed a glass entrance to the office of the European Union’s foreign policy agency.
Europe’s Omicron wave
The protest comes as a wave of infections fuelled by the highly contagious Omicron variant of the coronavirus causes infections to reach record highs across Europe.
Organisers including the World Wide Demonstration for Freedom and Europeans United for Freedom had called for people to come from other EU states.
Flags from Poland, the Netherlands, France and Romania could be seen in the crowd.
“What has been happening since 2020 has allowed people to wake up to corruption,” said Francesca Fanara, who had travelled from Lille in northern France. “I have come to march together.”
“It’s a health dictatorship,” said Adolfo Barbosa from Portugal. “It warms the heart to see these people here.”
The EU’s health agency said on Friday that Omicron had now become the dominant variant circulating in the bloc and some neighbouring countries.