When Germans took to the streets last weekend to protest use of face masks, even as their government proposed tougher measures to enforce public health protocols, they underscored an abiding feature of such expressions of dissent across Europe.
Increasingly, Europeans appear to be losing faith in representative government and its institutions, and this discontent is not unique to any ideological or ethnic grouping.
In Berlin, for instance, skinheads and neo-Nazis marched alongside members of the LGBTQ community, those holding up Gandhi flags, climate activists, conspiracy theorists and evangelists to demand that a proposed new law be scrapped because it violates civil rights.
The legislation arms the federal government with powers to curb social contact, ensure the wearing of masks, stop drinking in public places and shut shops. Ironically, Germany’s far-right Alternative for Democracy party has likened the legislation to the 1933 Enabling Act that paved the way to Adolf Hitler’s dictatorship.
Many of the protestors said they opposed vaccinations, while some maintained that coronavirus was just a flu. While most of the protesters were peaceful, one group attacked the police, leading to injuries on both sides. Germany is not alone to confront a growing anti-mask movement. In recent weeks, France, Spain and other European countries have seen protests targeting the use of face masks.
A left-wing French think tank conducted a survey among Facebook users and found that antimaskers are almost evenly divided between those on the Right and the Left. Among the factors that bind them are an abiding mistrust of the government, with only 2 per cent of them saying they trust President Emmanuel Macron and just 10 per cent placing their faith in the country’s powerful unions.
The reasons for the distrust are widespread, but a common refrain is that masks are ineffective, and hamper breathing. Others have more extreme views, believing that Covid-19 is a hoax and that face masks are tools of enslavement. The survey found that the average age of anti-maskers was 50 and that 63 per cent of them were women.
More than a third of them are from upper socio-economic groups and as many as 94 per cent said they would refuse a vaccine. In Madrid, earlier this month, protestors carried placards that said, “Help us defeat totalitarianism” even as they torched garbage bins and set up makeshift barricades on a main thoroughfare.
Like other European protestors, those in Madrid spoke out against what they termed a “fake pandemic” as they attacked the imposition of containment measures. Protesters in London a few weeks ago had termed the virus a government hoax designed to undo democracy.
With more protests planned in the days ahead, European regulators, committed to safeguarding the rule of law as well as free speech, will face increasing challenges as national governments scramble to put in place measures that have been more widely accepted in many other parts of the world.