Large rallies were held across Europe and Australia on Saturday to protest lockdowns, “vaccine passports” and other measures to curb the spread of Covid-19. Thousands of people attended a “Freedom Rally” in London’s Trafalgar Square, where guest speakers included conspiracy theorists David Icke, Gillian McKeith and Piers Corbyn. Former nurse and anti-vaccine activist Kate Shemirani made a shocking speech comparing NHS workers to Nazis who were convicted at the Nuremberg trials, while McKeith on Twitter baselessly linked vaccine “passports” and mandates that are being introduced for certain professions (such as nursing home staff) and establishments in the UK to the Chinese social credit system.
Many people made false or misleading claims at or after the rally that young people were being victimized by new restrictions and coerced into taking vaccines, and that natural infections provide better immunity than vaccines. The World Health Organization says that vaccination is a less risky and more reliable way to gain protection from Covid-19 than through infection. While virologists are still trying to understand why immunity lasts longer in some people than others, data has consistently shown that Covid-19 vaccines provide better immunity than infection.
In France, new rules for the Covid-19 health pass — which will now restrict access to restaurants, bars and other venues for unvaccinated people — have sparked protests across the country. More than 160,000 people took to the streets Saturday, with police deploying water cannons and tear gas to disperse protesters. In Italy, the government’s decision to introduce a “green pass” sparked protests in several cities and led to heated criticism on social media. Facebook posts containing the term “sanitary dictatorship” spiked on Italian and French public Pages and Groups, reaching at least 500,000 interactions in Italy and 840,000 in France, according to CrowdTangle data. Old pictures of protests, memes and articles from medical misinformation websites have also resurfaced on Italian social media and bubbled up within far-right Facebook Pages and Groups.
Outside Europe, thousands of people gathered in Sydney, Australia, in breach of Covid-19 public health orders. Australian MP Craig Kelly — who regularly shares misinformation — called for the premier of New South Wales to be removed from office because of the lockdown. Kelly also falsely claimed that the Pfizer vaccine “was completely useless in Israel at preventing covid infections” and accused Australia’s leaders of ignoring data that allegedly showed the vaccine doesn’t work. Liberal Democrat candidate John Ruddick filmed himself attending the Sydney rally and boasted about being fined $1,000 for being there. He argued in favor of ending lockdown restrictions, appearing to suggest the drop in daily UK Covid-19 cases was due to lifting most Covid-19 restrictions; this misleading claim has been widely shared on social media. — Carlotta Dotto, Lucy Swinnen, Anne Kruger, Esther Chan