Yesterday, 35,000 people gathered in central Brussels to express their disapproval for recent coronavirus restrictions that the federal government re-introduced last week. The protest turned violent, with 44 arrests and three injured police officers. Protestors threw objects at the police and officers used water cannons and tear gas to try and push back the unruly demonstrations. The protest carried on from 1:00pm — 5:00pm, with streets finally clearing and regular traffic resuming around 6:00pm.
Last week, Belgium made wearing masks mandatory for anyone aged 10 and above for all indoor and some outdoor activities. Home-working also became compulsory for four days per week and there are new limits on the number of people who can gather together.
Looking at images and videos of the Sunday protest, you wouldn’t think it’s happening in a cosmopolitan city like Brussels. Debris litters the streets, street barriers are piled up and in flames, and smoke envelops protestors and police officers.
How did it get so violent?
Apparently, a group of demonstrators headed down an unplanned route that wasn’t approved by the city, and from there, things got out of hand.
Motivations behind the Brussels protest
I tend to spend my Sundays “checked out” so I didn’t see anything about this protest until late at night, when I happened to check the news before bed. I was shocked by the amount of damage done and devastated at the number of people who’d turned out — 35,000. Thousands of people were so upset about having to put on a mask indoors again that they committed random acts of vandalism on the streets of Brussels.
Of course, the renewed mask mandate isn’t the only reason people showed up on Sunday. The motivations of the participants were diverse, according to RTBF. Some people were protesting the masks, others about having to use the Covid Safe Ticket, Belgium’s digital COVID-19 pass.
Others were concerned about a rule that took effect a few weeks ago, making vaccines mandatory for health professionals. Until the Friday before the protest, the Belgian government still hadn’t decided if employers could lay off healthcare workers for not having the COVID-19 vaccine, which undoubtedly fueled some of the ire at the protest. On that Friday, the government finally agreed that employers may only send unvaccinated health professionals home without pay, not fire them.
Privacy breach with Belgium’s Covid pass
I understand the protestors’ frustrations, especially the issue concerning medical workers. I also appreciate the invasion of privacy that the Covid Safe Ticket presents. Last month, a computer science researcher discovered that the list of Covid Safe Ticket numbers that were suspended due to recent contamination was publicly accessible through the government’s eHealth website. The app’s developer claimed to fix the problem shortly after, but a security and privacy nonprofit, Charta21, revealed that the problem persists.
Theoretically, employers could access this list and see if their employees were recently contaminated with COVID-19, just by looking up their national ID numbers. This kind of technical error is a huge privacy breach that could have serious consequences.
I get why so many people were angry on Sunday. I’m also concerned about the security of my personal health data and the fact that some vaccination information was public is worrying.
But I’m more worried that Brussels still has an adult vaccination rate below 70%. And that despite this, people still gather for large protests, unmasked (and possibly unvaccinated).
Previous Covid protests in Brussels
Throughout most of the pandemic, I’ve been disappointed by the general attitude toward vaccination and coronavirus restrictions in Brussels. It seems like people have been more concerned about protecting their individual freedoms than about the public good.
We’ve since moved, but earlier this year we lived in an apartment a few blocks away from Bois de la Cambre, a huge park in south-central Brussels. Bois de la Cambre was the site of two major anti-covid protests this spring. During one of the gatherings, we could hear shouting coming from the park with our windows open.
I was incredulous about the protests at Bois de la Cambre because with all those people gathering there, it meant that we had to stay away. I’m immuno-compromised and at the time hadn’t been fully vaccinated, so I was avoiding going out as much as possible. The only place my partner and I would venture to for leisure time away from the apartment during the pandemic was Bois de la Cambre, for some fresh air.
But the protestors scared us off. We didn’t go back to Bois de la Cambre for the rest of the summer, then we moved to another part of Brussels.
The right to protest restricts the movement of others
In a democracy like Belgium, citizens have the right to protest. I don’t want to condemn anyone for expressing their dissatisfaction with the government by assembling peacefully.
The protest on Sunday and the protests at Bois de la Cambre earlier this year, however, were not peaceful. There were arrests and injuries.
Although people do have the right to protest, gathering in such large groups during a pandemic poses a risk to public safety. Refusing to get a free vaccine and continuing to go in public spaces without a mask also poses a risk to public safety. I want people to have the freedom to choose and the right to protest. But I also want them to realize that their actions put others in danger.
If you move around in public without a vaccine during a pandemic, you’re exercising your right to freedom of movement — but effectively hindering mine. Yes, I am vaccinated so I should be protected but we are seeing that the efficacy of the vaccine may decrease after six months and that booster shots might be needed. Belgium even approved administering booster shots to the entire population earlier this month.
So when I see that 35,000 people gathered in the center of Brussels for a protest, many of whom weren’t wearing masks, may not have been vaccinated, and who caused reckless damage to the city, I don’t feel safe going out. I’m disappointed in Brussels.