The slippery slope of pandemic fatigue, and how to stay off it
Over the past month, you’ve probably done some things you hadn’t done in a while — sat on a park bench, gone to a mall, attended a party that promised to be small.
It feels less urgent to abide by all the rules, partly because you’ve stopped tracking the numbers as you did in the beginning, and partly because that distant beginning is now eight months ago. It’s an expected graph of motivation, if a dangerous one. And the World Health Organization (WHO) is calling it pandemic fatigue.
At the beginning of a crisis, most people are able to tap into their surge capacity – a collection of mental and physical adaptive systems that humans draw on for short-term survival in acutely stressful situations, states a WHO report released in September by its Regional Office for Europe. But as the situation drags on, previously effective core messages become less effective. There is a demotivation to follow recommended practices.
“In some places, the uptake of protective behaviours declines, while at the same time transmission is going up — which of course is the cocktail you do not want,” Katrine Habersaat, acting team lead for the behavioural and cultural insights unit at the WHO Regional Office for Europe, told Wknd.
In your head, you rationalise it. You tell yourself it’s an exception — the park bench, the mall, the party. You promise you won’t do it often. The truth is, you’re slipping, as is everyone else.
“These are patterns resulting from people’s emotional response to the longevity of this situation,” Habersaat says. “Governments may need to do more, and may need to do things differently, to keep the public vigilant.”
It can help to engage with individuals on a very local level. “I have two children, aged 13 and 15,” says Habersaat, who lives in Denmark. “In their schools they have not at any point been asked to engage in a discussion about how they would like to follow restrictions. If there is a lockdown and you’re at home, how would you like to receive the education? And it’s not just their school, it’s most schools. And it’s not just the schools, it’s workplaces, sports clubs. That needs to change. Conversations with individuals at a local level could reveal misperceptions, practical barriers that could perhaps be addressed. It could answer crucial questions such as, how do we stay social and safe?”
So that’s what the government can do. What can you?
* Applaud what you have achieved. Acknowledge what you have adjusted to — a world so different, it would have been unthinkable in February. “It’s important to acknowledge hardship as well,” Habersaat says. “And it’s important to not demean any hardship. For the young people, for instance, being social is a very fundamental part of their lives and without it they fear loneliness, fear being left out, fear no longer being part of the social group. If we don’t acknowledge that hardship there is a risk we will lose them and they will begin to disregard all our recommendations.”
* Give yourself a (reasonable) break: This is where you admit it’s not just the young people. No one can deal in absolutes indefinitely. “If you continue to aim for 100% it may feel impossible immediately,” Habersaat says. “Instead, apply a harm-reduction strategy. Define what is really possible, while still staying safe. For instance, getting 10 people together under safe conditions following all restrictions is a lot better than having counter-reactions with social bursts of gatherings and people not following any recommendations at all.” Going forward, Habersaat adds, it will be important to allow people to somehow live their lives but guide them on how to do that in a safe way.
* Turn the necessary restrictions into habits through constant repetition. That way it doesn’t feel like a restriction anymore; instead, it’s just the way you do things now. Involve those you live with in the new traditions. Involve children, because their affinity for routine means that once they embrace an idea they tend to adhere to it and ensure the adults around them do as well.