BERLIN (Reuters) - Thousands of Germans across the country took to the streets on Saturday to protest against restrictions imposed by the government to contain the coronavirus pandemic, police and organisers said.
Germany’s death toll from the virus has been lower than most of its European neighbours and some lockdown measures have already been relaxed.
However, protests against the measures Chancellor Angela Merkel insists are needed to slow down the coronavirus outbreak have become more vocal and demonstrators have filled the streets for the second weekend in a row.
Derided on social media as “covidiots” who risk causing a second wave of infections that could lead to a tightening of restrictions, protesters staged demonstrations at several locations across the capital Berlin and the surrounding state of Brandenburg.
In Stuttgart, where some protesters last weekend had been flouting social distancing rules and not wearing face masks, police expected another rally of up to 5,000 people.
In Munich, organisers asked authorities to give the green light for a rally of up to 10,000 people on the Thersienwiese, a large square in the city centre on which Munich normally stages its world famous Oktoberfest beer festival.
But city officials pointed to the need to respect social distancing rules and allowed a demonstration of up to 1,000 people.
The hard core of protesters is being led by several new groups.
One group is Resistance 2020, led by a lawyer from eastern Leipzig and a doctor from south-western Germany who question official corona statistics and view the main political parties as constructs of an elitist rule.
Another group called COMPACT describes itself as the “sharp sword against imperial propaganda”. It declares on its website that it is helping the “information offensive” for the growing protest movement.
“Why aren’t you telling us the truth, Mrs Merkel? How we are losing our freedom, jobs and health?” says COMPACT.
German media have suggested Russia could be behind a misinformation campaign that is spurring on protesters.
After winning global respect for keeping the death rate low in Germany, Merkel last week bowed to pressure from some of Germany’s powerful regional premiers and agreed to a gradual re-opening of schools, shops and restaurants and even soccer.
However, Merkel, a scientist, has repeatedly warned about a second wave of infections, and a brief uptick in the reproduction rate to above the critical threshold of 1 earlier this week caused fresh concern.
The new coronavirus has so far infected more than 173,000 people in Germany and killed nearly 7,900.
Most Germans approve Merkel’s crisis management, with polls showing support for her conservative CDU/CSU alliance surging to 40%. A survey released on Thursday showed that 56% of the population back the current lockdown measures.
Reporting by Michael Nienaber and Madeline Chambers; Editing by Christina Fincher