MADRID - A movement that denies the existence of COVID-19 has split Spanish society as the country is battling to control the highest number of coronavirus cases in Europe.
Stop Confinamiento España, one of the groups behind the movement, has said it will hold a protest next month in Madrid, calling it a “peaceful demonstration against the measures imposed in connection with the false health crisis caused by COVID-19.”
The strength of feeling among those who claim coronavirus is an invention by a ruling elite to control the masses was demonstrated when an estimated 2,500 people staged a protest in Madrid on Sunday.
The movement has gained ground thanks in part to the support of high profile celebrity supporters like Miguel Bosé, a popular Spanish singer.
Bosé has used his social media platforms in recent weeks to promote what some describe as conspiracy theories about COVID-19, and he claimed a planned vaccine was a pretext to control the world’s population using 5G mobile phone technology.
Sunday’s demonstration echoed those in June staged in cities across Spain by mainly right wing groups that were protesting restrictions imposed on personal freedoms by the left wing coalition government in order to curtail a rising number of coronavirus cases.
Spain last week announced a nationwide ban on smoking and drinking in public if social distancing cannot be guaranteed.
The COVID-19 denial movement in Spain echoes similar libertarian movements that have sprung up in the U.S., France, Britain and Germany.
The controversial cause has divided Spaniards, with recent polls showing a quarter of the population objects to the obligatory use of face masks across the country.
The emergence of the movement comes at a delicate time, as Spain has seen a sharp rise in coronavirus cases since emerging from lockdown in June and now has the highest number of people diagnosed with the pathogen in Europe with 359,082 cases, according to health ministry data on August 17.
People were urged to join Sunday’s protest by an animated video featuring the Beatles’ song Revolution.
The video urged demonstrators to wear masks to the protest in order to avoid arrest or police action and to allow “the elderly and those with health conditions to attend”.
However, the vast majority of those who turned up were not wearing masks and were shouting “We want to see the virus” and “5G is the real killer.”
Josep Pàmies, a farmer from Catalonia in northeast Spain who is an anti-vaccination activist, was among the speakers at the Madrid demonstration.
He said the pathogen could be cured with “kisses, hugs, medicinal plants and confidence. With this we can stop the madness of our politicians”. Ouka Leele, a poet and photographer, told demonstrators “We can’t live like zombies with masks on in the streets.”
Spain’s official death toll from coronavirus stands at just over 28,600 but the real figure, including those undiagnosed, is believed to be around 44,000, including 20,000 elderly residents of care homes, according to an investigation by the El País newspaper, which collated data from regional authorities and health studies.
The Madrid demonstration prompted angry condemnation from authorities and doctors.
José Manuel Franco, Madrid’s regional security chief, said he will launch an investigation and take measures including fining organizers of the face mask protest.
Demonstrators were accused of breaching social distancing rules and crowding together as well as refusing to wear face coverings.
“There are always brainless people -- in this case quite a few -- who unfortunately do not comply with the law,” Franco told Cadena Ser radio network.
“I want to make it clear that this will be punished with the full force of the law.” Organizers could face heavier fines of up to $71,414 if they are found guilty of serious breach of public health measures.
Franco insisted his office had been duped into allowing the demonstration on false pretenses.
He said the organizers had not said the protest was against face masks, Franco claimed, but about censorship and freedom.
He also said that organizers insisted that social distancing would be observed, none of which happened.
Belén Padilla, a doctor and vice-president of the Madrid College of Physicians, said she felt “anger and sadness” when she saw the television images of the demonstration. “To deny the scientific evidence is absurd,” she said.
Pablo Simón, a political scientist from the University Carlos III in Madrid, told VOA, “conspiracy theories can be found in lots of places. The most recent poll found about 20-25% believe in them in Spain. Social media is very important in propagating these movements.”
A survey for the La Vanguardia newspaper found 74.96% of those who took part said they agreed with wearing masks, while 25.04% disagreed. By Monday night, 330,068 had voted.