In Germany, activists rise up to counter vaccine skeptics

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BERLIN — Stefanie Hoener was at home one night in Berlin when she heard police sirens wailing in her neighborhood of Prenzlauer Berg and anti-vaccine protesters shouting angry slurs as they marched toward Gethsemane Church — a symbol of the 1989 peaceful revolution in East Germany which ended the communist dictatorship.

“That night, these people really crossed a line,” Hoener said Monday as she stood with 200 others – many of them neighbors – outside the red-brick church to shield it from anti-vaccine protesters. watching her from across the street.

“If today, when everyone is allowed to speak freely without having to fear anything, they stand here and say that we live in a dictatorship, then I can’t tolerate that anymore,” he said. Hoener told The Associated Press. “For my part, I am very happy to have been vaccinated for free and to have received financial support from the government during the pandemic.

The 55-year-old actress is among a growing number of Germans who have joined grassroots initiatives and spontaneous protests to expose vaccine opponents, conspiracy theorists and far-right extremists who have led protests against German measures against COVID-19.

Across the country, new counter-protesters have spoken out in favor of government pandemic restrictions and a universal vaccine mandate, which will be debated for the first time in Germany’s parliament on Wednesday.

Tens of thousands of people have signed manifestos against illegal anti-vaccine protests in cities like Leipzig, Bautzen and Freiberg. Others have formed human chains in Oldenburg or Rottweil to repel far-right protesters, while dozens of medical students recently held a silent vigil outside a Dresden hospital to protest against a gathering of vaccine skeptics far right.

The silent majority in Germany who have obediently reduced their social contacts, got vaccinated and monitored themselves for nearly two years to protect themselves and those most vulnerable to COVID-19 seem fed up with the small but vocal minority of coronavirus deniers.

The new counter-protesters believe that the sweeping rejections of the vaccine have attracted inordinate media attention and are having too much influence on public debate about how Germany should handle the pandemic.

Even the German president this week called on the country’s silent majority to stand up and protect the country’s democracy.

“Being a majority is not enough. The majority must become politically recognizable. He must not back down. The silent center must become more visible, more self-confident and also louder,” President Frank-Walter Steinmeier said during a panel Monday in Berlin.

Stephan Thiel, a theater director, said he was initially hesitant to join the rally outside the church in Gethsemane on Monday because he didn’t want to mingle with too many people amid infections fast-spreading viruses. At the same time, he also felt he had no choice but to voice his opinion.

“There are a lot of sane people staying home because of the virus. I also find it a bit problematic to be here. But we have to be there,” he said, speaking behind a black virus mask. “We have to show that we are there and that they are not in the majority. And I hope more and more people come every time.”

Thiel, 51, grew up under communism. He still remembers how millions of East Germans toppled the regime with their weekly protests in 1989. He said he was particularly offended that anti-vaccine protesters tried to exploit the symbolism of the church in Gethsemane as a famous meeting place for opponents of the communist regime.

“I really don’t like the way they’re trying to use this story. This is also a reason why I came here to take a stand,” he added.

The call for action from pro-vaccine activists comes at a time when German society could become even more polarized as a universal mandate for the COVID-19 vaccine is under discussion in parliament. Divisions on this issue cross party lines. The coalition government left it to lawmakers to craft cross-party proposals on whether a mandate should be and how it should be designed.

So far, at least 73.5% of Germany’s 83 million inhabitants have been fully vaccinated and 50.8% have already received a booster shot.

For Hoener, who has joined a neighborhood initiative that holds weekly vigils in front of the church, there is no doubt that Germany should soon introduce a vaccination mandate.

“In Germany, unfortunately, there are not enough people who get vaccinated voluntarily, so I think it should be made compulsory,” she said. “Otherwise we will never get rid of this pandemic.”

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Follow all AP pandemic stories at https://apnews.com/hub/coronavirus-pandemic

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