WELLINGTON, Nov. 9 (Reuters) – New Zealand tightened security measures in its parliament on Tuesday as thousands of people gathered to protest COVID-19 vaccine mandates and government lockdowns to contain the pandemic.
All but two entrances to the parliament building, known as the Bijenkorf, were closed with unprecedented security measures as most of the unmasked protesters marched through the center of Wellington and gathered outside parliament.
While the demonstration passed peacefully, many people were seen holding placards and placards with messages such as “Freedom” and “Kiwis are not lab rats” and shouting slogans as they demanded the government roll back mandatory vaccination and lift restrictions.
Signs were also displayed showing support for former US President Donald Trump and labeled the media “fake” and untruthful.
“I will not be forced and I will not be forced to take anything I do not want in my body,” said a protester outside parliament.
“I am asking (the government) to give us back 2018. It’s that simple. I want my freedoms back.”
New Zealand has struggled this year to fight a highly contagious outbreak of the Delta variant, forcing Prime Minister Jacinda Ardern to move from his strategy of elimination through lockdowns to living with the virus with higher vaccinations.
Ardern said last month that the country would require teachers and workers in the health and disability sector to be fully vaccinated against COVID-19, sparking criticism from those advocating greater freedoms and ending mandatory vaccine requirements.
“Treat us like humans!” exclaimed another protester when asked about the government’s stance on mandating the vaccine.
“I’m here for freedom. The government, what they’re doing, is anti-freedom.”
Speaking to reporters in parliament, Ardern said: “What we saw today was not representative of the vast majority of New Zealanders.”
But the prime minister faces mounting political pressure and public protests to ease pandemic measures ahead of the Christmas holidays.
She plans to travel to Auckland on Wednesday, when the lockdown measures imposed on the city nearly three months ago are eased. She is expected to face more protests during her visit.
New Zealand still has one of the lowest COVID-19 cases in the world with fewer than 8,000 reported cases and 32 deaths to date. It reported 125 new cases Tuesday, and the overall double-dose vaccination rate had reached nearly 80% of the eligible population.
Reporting by Praveen Menon in Wellington and Shashwat Awasthi in Bengaluru; Editing by Matthew Lewis and Raju Gopalakrishnan
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