Spain starts the new year with massive COVID spikes and anti-vaccine demonstrations

BARCELONA, Spain — As dusk fell on New Year’s Day in downtown Barcelona, most everyone strolling outside past the department store Corte Ingles was masked per a government mandate issued last week. In a country that was one of the first to be slammed by the coronavirus, the return of the mandate had come as the Omicron variant pushed new cases soaring to 100,000 per day.

But as hand-holding, mask-compliant couples passed beneath glittering Christmas lights, a low roar drew near. The rumbling of the drums, horns and whistles gave the impression of a boisterous army approaching, perhaps a parade or a raucous circus show. Pedestrians paused, glancing up the street as the word “Li-ber-tad” could be heard, the chants soon followed by some 800 protesters, holding placards about the “plandemic,” the “Health Dictatorship” and “muzzles.”

Demonstrations in Catalonia, the northeast region of Spain seeking independence, are common, but this one was different: It was a protest against vaccines and masks. And especially against the new COVID pass, the digital certificate for use across the 27 countries of the European Union, although not all countries demand its use. Catalonia began requiring the document — which shows that a person has received two doses of a COVID-19 vaccine, has had a negative PCR test or has recently recovered from COVID — for entry to restaurants, bars and gyms in late November. The passport, along with the recent approval of COVID vaccinations for children 5 years or older, appeared to be triggering a backlash just at the time that Omicron has hit the country with full force.

Protesters at a demonstration in Barcelona
Protesters at a demonstration in Barcelona on New Year's Day. (Paco Freire/SOPA Images/LightRocket via Getty Images)

Until December, anti-vaccine sentiment was in the closet in Barcelona, and masking was a part of everyday life. In Spain, unlike the U.S., the U.K. and many other European countries, an indoor mask mandate that went into effect in May 2020 never lifted. The requirement to wear masks outdoors was lifted only in June, only to be reimposed in late December. Residents complied largely without complaint, wearing masks inside stores and seafood markets, on public transport and in taxis — and they wore them correctly. That pragmatic approach seemed a source of pride in a nation where over 90 percent of the population over the age of 12 has received at least two doses of a vaccine and the demand for boosters has been robust.

But by the time the COVID passport was approved six weeks ago, the mood in Barcelona had started to change. Workers at some bodegas and shops began ditching their masks, rail commuters stopped wearing them on lines that operated without ticket conductors, and the anti-COVID-passport demonstrations had become a weekly occurrence, sometimes drawing crowds of over 2,000.

Similar to demonstrations that have sprung up in Madrid and Valencia, Barcelona’s New Year’s Day protest included those upset over vaccines as well as the requirement to wear masks whenever in public.

People in line to receive COVID-19 vaccinations
People line up to receive COVID-19 vaccinations in Barcelona. (Paco Freire/SOPA Images/LightRocket via Getty Images)

It was quickly obvious that this demonstration was leaderless — though a Grim Reaper, a black-cloaked man holding a large plastic syringe, captured people's attention at the head of the crowd. Most of the several hundred who took part in it appeared to be middle-aged couples or single people tooting into squeaky plastic horns, holding placards written in Spanish, some of which read “No muzzles, no vaccines,” “Turn off your TV” or “Vaccines are human experiments and crimes against humanity.” One woman held one in English that proclaimed, “My body, my choice.”

Of the hundreds passing through the Gothic Quarter, almost all went without face coverings despite the risk of a 100-euro ($115) fine. A number of demonstrators glared at me, apparently because I was wearing a mask, then an agitated man ran toward me waving a flyer and screamed to his fellow demonstrators that I was a terrorist upon learning that I was a journalist. He became enraged when he noticed I was double-masked.

“Two masks?” he yelled in my face. “Why are you wearing two masks? You shouldn’t even be wearing one!” COVID was all a fabrication, a conspiracy, he continued. We had to see the truth, he went on, until my husband, who had accompanied me to the protest, stepped in front of him and guided me to safety down a side street.

Anti-vaxxers march in Madrid
Anti-vaxxers march in Madrid on Sunday. (Oscar Gonzalez/NurPhoto via Getty Images)

The flyer the man had pressed on me depicted former Microsoft founder Bill Gates as the instigator of COVID, denounced the World Health Organization and went after the “lying” media.

A half-mile away, at Calle Ferran, the protesters turned in to Plaza Sant Jaume, which houses City Hall and the Palau de Generalitat, the heart of the regional Catalan government. Two police paddy wagons were parked on either side of the palace, but the officers didn’t emerge from their vehicles as protesters screamed about the health dictatorship while standing before an illuminated government banner hanging across the building with the message “Freedom of opinion and expression.”

In the square, I approached a young couple, asking to interview them, but they turned me away, as did a number of others. “You’re wearing a mask,” yelled one older woman. “Why would I talk to you? You’re one of them!”

An anti-vaccination protester
An anti-government protester in Barcelona. (Paco Freire/SOPA Images/LightRocket via Getty Images)

Finally a middle-aged man, Sergi, an IT specialist from a nearby town, and his wife agreed to speak. I asked what they had come to specifically protest — the COVID pass, the vaccines or the mask mandate.

“All three!” he replied.

Asked if they had friends or family who had gotten sick during the pandemic, they were incredulous.

“Nobody,” Sergi replied. Neither he nor his wife believed anyone had gotten ill with COVID, and PCR tests were also bunk.

“Even drinking one drop of Coca-Cola gives a positive result,” his companion said.

The Catalan government has been mum on the ongoing protests. “It doesn’t seem like a properly organized movement, at least in Spain,” one COVID adviser to the regional government who requested anonymity told Yahoo News, “just a motley mix of radicals and confused people. There is not a proper anti-vax ‘association,’ as far as I know, just scattered fans of [anti–medical establishment] gurus. In the U.S., you can easily point to far-right and hardcore Republicans, but in Spain a lot of the anti-vaxxers are actually from the left.”

An anti-vaccination placard at a demonstration in Barcelona
An anti-vaccination placard at a demonstration in Barcelona. (Paco Freire/SOPA Images/LightRocket via Getty Images)

Though the anti-vax movement in Spain “seems more like a spontaneous and disorganized fringe movement,” he doesn’t expect the protests to stop until this “sixth wave” of COVID lets up, along with the restrictions that are in effect in Catalonia, including a curfew imposed last week, from 1 a.m. to 6 a.m.

Spanish health officials, who on Monday announced that hospitalizations are rising and that Spain’s COVID rate had soared in six weeks — from 46 cases per 100,000 residents to 2,295 per 100,000 — believe that this wave may peak in mid-January, allowing relief of some restrictions. Until then, protesters plan to keep hitting the streets.


How are vaccination rates affecting the latest COVID surge? Check out this explainer from Yahoo Immersive to find out.