Should the Berlin protests have been stopped sooner?
— 3 minute read — By Maggie Gannon
The current global pandemic has created hostility and divided opinions amongst many of us, and, as it continues to dominate the political atmosphere and daily front pages, this hostility is beginning to spread to the streets of capital cities across Europe.
The beginning of a new month saw an estimated figure of up to 20,000 protesters take to streets of Berlin starting at the Brandenburg gate and culminating in the city’s Tiergarten Park, calling on government officials to ease lockdown restrictions within Germany in order to signify the end of the pandemic. Although the majority of the protest did remain peaceful with many holding placards and various symbolic flags as well as chanting that appeared to agree with conspiracy theories regarding the virus, there were reports of violence towards attending police officers and journalists towards the end of the day. Around 45 police officers were reported injured after intervening regarding breaches of peace and offensive symbols being used on signage.
Organisers of the protest called it the “day of freedom”, with those taking part in large tightly packed crowds with no regard for current requirements of wearing a mask despite reports of rising numbers of coronavirus cases across the country. Germany had reported 466 confirmed cases of the virus on 1st July, but since then this has been on a steady rise with 955 confirmed cases reported on 1st August just a month later.
Throughout the day officials began to dissipate crowds after those protesting ultimately were failing to abide by social distancing guidelines still in place by German law. However, the protesters themselves did not seem to fall under one political group or idea, with many from the far left and far right, as well as followers of anti-vaccination groups and anti-Islamic groups. Some individuals interviewed by journalists insisted they were not a part of more extremist groups but were instead unhappy with the German government’s lack of easing of restrictions holding signs referring to ideas of government surveillance controlling the virus and ultimately the people.
When asked about the motivation of protesters, a popular opinion amongst many journalists and social scientists is that the positive portrayal of Germany’s handling of coronavirus within mainstream media, has led citizens to become naive to the possible risks of a second wave, as well as the current situation with growing cases in Europe. Much of the media during the pandemic has reported positively on how measures introduced by Merkel’s government have mitigated the number of deaths in the country. However, this all begins to pose the question of whether having the right to legally protest peacefully should remain common law given the risks of infections. Research has shown that wearing a mask will reduce the rate of contamination amongst individuals ultimately lowering infection rates, as well as that gathering in groups outside is far safer than holding gatherings indoors. Given the nature of the protests individuals chose not to wear masks which is believed to pose a greater risk in infections, although as the current German infection rate remains low and manageable, it is unclear whether relatively small crowds will spike infections rates in a fairly large country.
This ongoing argument has divided the German government, as well as the opposition AfD (Alternative for Deutschland), who having strongly opposed measures to stop the spread of the virus in the beginning of the epidemic, have since gone quiet after the success became apparent. Merkel’s coalition government don’t hold a universal opinion, however, with Saskia Esken of the Social Democrats (a coalition partner) referring to protesters as “irresponsible” on Twitter, while Interior Minister Horst Seehofer was more understanding, citing “infringements of basic rights”.