By Lidia Kelly
MELBOURNE (Reuters) - Several thousand people took to Australia's streets on Saturday protesting COVID-19 vaccination mandates, while smaller crowds gathered to support the measures that have elevated the country to be one of the most inoculated in the world.
Nearly 85% of Australians aged 16 and above have been fully vaccinated against the coronavirus as of Nov. 19. While nationwide vaccinations are voluntary, states and territories have mandated vaccinations for many occupations and barred the unvaccinated from activities such as dining out and concerts.
Chanting 'Freedom, freedom' and carrying 'End Segregation Now' signs, several thousand anti-vaccination protesters marched through Melbourne's downtown, Australia's second-most populous city that was hit the hardest by the pandemic.
Protesters gathered also in Sydney, Brisbane and other cities, with no immediate reports of unruly behaviour. A banner in Sydney read, "My life is not a gift from the government, it is a gift from God," according to The Age newspaper.
The anti-vaccination rallies have continued for weeks in Australia, becoming occasionally violent and attracting lose groups of regular citizens, as well as far-right and conspiracy theory supporters.
The anti-vaccination movement, however, remains small, with polls showing nationwide opposition in the single digits.
A counter-rally of several hundred took place in Melbourne, organised by the Campaign Against Racism & Fascism group under the slogan of 'Don't scab, get the jab'.
The chief of the Australia Open tournament, the year's first Grand Slam tennis tournament and one of Australia's biggest sporting events, said on Saturday, that all players will have to be vaccinated to compete in January in Melbourne.
On Saturday, there were 1,166 new COVID-19 infections in the state of Victoria, of which Melbourne is the capital. Five more people died. The most populous state of New South Wales, where nearly 92% of people are fully vaccinated, reported 182 new cases.
Despite the Delta outbreaks that led to months of lockdown in Sydney and Melbourne, Australia has had only about 760 confirmed cases and 7.5 deaths per 100,000 people, according to data from the World Health Organisation, far lower than many other developed nations. The United Kingdom, for example, has had more than 14,000 confirmed cases and 211 deaths per 100,000 people.
Neighbouring New Zealand, which is also learning to live with the coronavirus through high vaccination rates, reported 172 new cases. As of Friday, 83% of the Pacific nation's population have been fully vaccinated.
(Reporting by Lidia Kelly; Editing by Michael Perry)