Thousands of protesters again took to the streets of Brussels on Sunday to oppose coronavirus restrictions, despite the Belgian government opting to hold off on new measures this past week and warnings of surging cases.
Unmasked demonstrators, calling for “liberty” and “freedom,” say they want the government to abolish the COVID certificate required to enter various places, and for Belgium’s scientific advisory council to consider a greater range of perspectives in decision-making.
Organizers estimated around 25,000 participated, while the police cited a figure closer to 5,000 — a major drop in participation from the roughly 35,000 people who attended a protest last November that turned violent.
Sunday’s demonstration was the latest organized by the group “Samen Voor Vrijheid,” meaning Together for Freedom, since the unrest at the November 21 protest, and was notably more peaceful. The umbrella organization Together for Freedom brings together smaller groups including Virus Madness, Fight For Freedom, The Human Side and Belgians for Freedom.
The march began at Brussels’ Gare du Nord railway station and tailed off around Parc du Cinquantenaire, where at one point police faced off against several protesters setting off firecrackers, but the confrontation was quickly quelled. Officers had confiscated firecrackers and helmets from some participants at the start of the protest in order to avoid clashes seen last year. Police later reported several arrests in the vicinity of Parc du Cinquantenaire, just before 5 p.m.
The demonstration attracted a wide array of participants, from families with young children to beer-slugging youngsters, as well as EU politicians.
“We are asking for our rights, freedom and our liberty back,” MEP Cristian Terheș from the European Conservatives and Reformists Group told POLITICO as he led a contingent of fellow Romanians.
“What is happening right now all across Europe, it’s an undescribable abuse that we haven’t seen, at least in the West, since the Second World War,” he said.
Though Belgian officials refrained from imposing new measures this past Thursday, Prime Minister Alexander De Croo warned that “the coming weeks will be difficult” and anticipated seeing new record levels of infections: “The numbers are on the rise and the situation will get worse before it gets better.”
Ezra Armakye, a lead organizer with Together for Freedom, argued Belgium’s rules for the use of COVID passes in bars, restaurants and sports and fitness centers only serve to “stimulate separation” among citizens.
Gaetan Cantimeau, a 46-year-old cardiologist from Charleroi, said the main reason he decided to protest was to show support for “preserving our liberty in the public space.”
Olivier Gosselet, a 47-year-old IT engineer in Brussels who attended the demonstration with his young daughter, said he is skeptical about the direction Europe is headed with regards to vaccination programs.
“I’m against mass vaccination because I believe there are other solutions to the pandemic,” he said.