Czechs protest over the mental, economic toll of coronavirus restrictions

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PRAGUE (Reuters) - Several thousand protesters in the Czech Republic, including former prime minister and president Vaclav Klaus, gathered in Prague's Old Town Square on Sunday to call on the government to lift coronavirus restrictions.

Protesters said the closure of restaurants, hotels, other businesses and schools was taking an economic and mental toll. Many of those gathered were not wearing face masks and did not adhere to social-distancing guidelines.

"During pandemics in the past ill people were isolated," Klaus told the crowd police estimated at 2,500 to 3,000 people. "Now, for first time in the history, the healthy people are isolated. This is absurd."

Scientists note that coronavirus can be transmitted by people who are infected but who do not show symptoms - a sizeable proportion of overall infections - which is why measures to stop the broad population from mingling have been widely implemented around the world since the start of the pandemic.

The Czech Republic has recorded 13,115 coronavirus deaths and 831,165 cases. Its rate of 12.7 deaths per million using the latest seven-day average ranks as the world's highest, according to the ourworldindata.org website supported by Oxford University.

The government had relaxed restrictive measures ahead of Christmas and despite signs of a resurgence held off tightening them again amid public discontent.

But it raised curbs to the highest level again from Dec. 27, closing most shops, imposing a night curfew from 9 p.m. and barring public assembly of more than two people.

"We are convinced that the constitution is damaged - freedom of movement, freedom of business, freedom of gathering is broken," the demonstration's organizer David Biksadsky said. "Many enterprises...are dying."

(Reporting by Jiri Skacel; Writing by Michael Kahn; Editing by Frances Kerry)