For almost a year, now, I’ve been reading about the pandemic on the internet and watching daily reports on infection rates and preventive measures. Because I work at a mental health facility, I’m most concerned with how this plague has affected psychological wellbeing. For example, pandemic fatigue—also called “behavioral fatigue,” “emergency fatigue,” “public fatigue,” and “adherence fatigue”—has been talked about since at least March 2020, three months after Covid-19 went public.
When we discuss pandemic fatigue, it’s best to start with what it is not. It is not the exhaustion attached to those who have overcome COVID-19 but suffer ongoing symptoms of tiredness, aching muscles, and brain fog. Among other names, the aftermath of infection has been called “post-COVID-19 fatigue.”
In contrast, pandemic fatigue describes our deteriorating adherence to government restrictions, isolation, and social distancing guidelines intended to stop the spread of COVID-19. It’s a fatigue that can seriously damage our efforts to prevent COVID-19 infections (Global Alliance for Vaccines and Immunisation, 2020, September 23). Yet how we make sense of pandemic fatigue is not entirely clear.
A popular interpretation of pandemic fatigue is that the effort required to detect risky situations and follow restrictions takes a lot of energy. It’s exhausting making decisions based on confusing guidelines, facing an unknown end date, and disinfecting furniture and door handles constantly. More exhausting is being in a constant state of high alert and uncertainty. In its article on pandemic fatigue, the Global Alliance for Vaccines and Immunisation (GAVI; 2020, September 23), describes it as “feeling overwhelmed with still having to maintain a state of constant vigilance . . . and a weariness to abide by restrictions.”
Most of us are okay maintaining adherence, but the numbers show that as time goes on more people are selectively adhering to restrictions. It is not the case that these people simply ignore guidelines. Researchers have pointed out that adherence to restrictions in many countries has remained more-or-less at about 90 percent throughout. Pandemic fatigue is largely about this 90 percent group, not the 10 percent who flout the laws and guidelines. So pandemic fatigue affects those who favor restrictions aimed at preventing infection. The problem, according to this interpretation, is that they’re just tired. Researchers have discovered various factors leading to fatigue, such as depleting mental resources needed to keep hypervigilant about infection, and mistrusting government efforts to deal with the pandemic.
Pandemic Fatigue is More than Being Tired
Although a depleted level of energy has been pinned to many issues arising from the pandemic—including stress, depression, and the aftermath of COVID-19 infection—recent research suggests that pandemic fatigue is far more than merely being tired.
Unlike the GAVI interpretation, more recent analyses have proposed that pandemic fatigue is not really about fatigue at all. Psychologists Michie, West, and Harvey (2020) argue that pandemic fatigue is misnamed. The decline in adherence is better explained by situational variables, rather than by any loss of motivation. For example, those who are financially insecure or have been laid off during the pandemic are likely more willing to return to work than those who are financially secure. As well, they point out that in the UK compliance decreased after the public learned that the prime minister’s senior aide had broken restrictions by traveling 400 km to his parents’ home. There appeared to be one set of rules for the privileged and another for the rest.
Writing for the British Medical Journal, psychologists Reicher and Drury (2021) reach a similar conclusion: “Non-adherence [to COVID-19 restrictions] is a matter of practicality, not psychology.” The “typical view” is that those who don’t follow the rules 100 percent suffer from “our shared human weaknesses or from personal failings.” We read about “covidiots,” who flout the rules and put us all at higher risk. Yet the authors did not support this view; rather, they saw the issue in pragmatic terms. In the UK, for example, about 18 percent of those self-isolating did not really self-isolate. Later analysis pointed out that those who were financially insecure and lacked resources broke self-isolation the most. In line with Michie, West, and Harvey, people who most needed to work or buy groceries complied the least. The authors suggested that financial inequality, with young people most affected, is a more accurate description than pandemic fatigue.
David Badre (2021, January 24), a neuropsychologist, also argued that pandemic fatigue is “not just about exhaustion or tiredness—or depleting a mental resource.” What we may see as fatigue is better explained in terms of costs and benefits of cognitive control and mental effort. The pandemic and our rules to stem it require a great deal of mental energy—it takes effort to decide if one should wear a mask, work from home with kids and pets, avoid public transport, disinfect home and workplace, self-isolate, and so on. We conduct a sort of cost-benefit analysis to decide whether to expend all this energy in the hope of keeping safe. But mistrust of government and its pandemic rules, awareness that politicians and officials secretly and flagrantly flout the rules, and conflicting regulations (I can go to a restaurant with friends but I can’t have them to dinner at my house) cost us mental energy. At some point, Badre argues, people become more selective in their attention to restrictions because the cost is no longer worth the benefit.
Flinders (2020, March 25), a professor of politics, views pandemic fatigue from a wider perspective. He suggests that this fatigue is really about the effort needed to respond to a series of crises. We’re facing more than just COVID-19. We’ve had two decades of sociopolitical crises, such as the 2008 financial crisis, mass refugee movement, violence in the Middle East, and a succession of global pandemics such as SARS (2003), bird flu (2005), swine flu (2009), MERS (2012), Ebola (2014), Covid-19 (2020). Flinders wrote,
I propose that crisis fatigue is a sociopolitical condition. It’s the tiredness that comes as result of the constant fear associated with repeated warnings about crisis, disaster or catastrophe. It also refers to the weakening of political or other social structures caused by repeated narratives of impending doom. That is, falling levels of trust in politicians, political institutions and political processes as a succession of crises gradually saps the public’s confidence that their representatives actually have the ability to respond.
Flinder’s broader perspective suggests that the fatigue we’re feeling is only the latest expression of eroded confidence that authorities can overcome crises.
Beyond Practicality and Mental Effort
If we sum up the above interpretations of pandemic fatigue, we get something like this: We’re stressed from the tedious lockdown, uncertain of the end-date, willing to break restrictions because of financial insecurity, concluding that the mental effort to adhere strictly to guidelines may not be worth it, and lacking trust in government responses. Pandemic fatigue is not a single feeling or a single issue. It’s a multilayered experience.
I want to add another layer. I propose that the chronic, stressful condition we’ve been trudging through for more than a year is not so much about tedium or frustration as it is about feeling that what was once firm and secure in our lives now feels ephemeral and doomed. From this perspective, pandemic fatigue is more like metal fatigue, in which once solid metal loses its integrity over time. During the pandemic, it seems as if what we assumed about school, workplace, home, recreation—and, for some, political institutions—is now buckling. This shouldn’t surprise us. We know that pandemics throughout history have led to major social (and psychological) changes.
Lapham’s Quarterly’s special volume, Epidemic (Lapham, 2020, Summer), is a collection of 80 historical and literary works on plagues and scourges reaching back from Wuhan, China’s first public outbreak of COVID-19 to plagues Before the Common Era. In the Preamble, writer Francine Prose prefaces her remarks by pointing out what appears to be an ugly feature of the natural history of any epidemic: “The criminal relationship between public health, capitalism, greed, and unconscionable lying.”
More important for Prose, however, are those themes that a plague provokes regardless its historical date. She tells us that the various writings in the collection are eerily familiar, like walking around a corner and suddenly seeing your face in a mirror. Pandemics, regardless of when they occur, seem to have had similar effects on human psychology. Here are a few of those effects from Epidemic:
- People begin questioning how society can go on after so much suffering (George Eliot, Romola)?
- Outbreaks are terrifying precisely because they are “banal”—any one of us could have succumbed (Karl Taro Greenfeld, “Recovery”). We’re all frail.
- Authorities have lost their moral compass, welcoming visitors despite a high infection rate and shifting blame for suffering onto conspiracies that even the authorities don’t believe (Alessandro Manzoni, The Betrothed).
Camus wrote in his novel, The Plague, “There have been as many plagues as wars in history; yet always plagues and wars take people equally by surprise.” Perhaps we’re surprised because we don’t have sufficient perspective to make out the dominant psychosocial currents in our COVID-19 pandemic. People gravitate to their “normal,” regardless of the situation, says historian Barbara Tuchman, a contributor to Epidemic. “It took 50 years after the 1351 Black Plague for Europe to change, arguably the birth of the modern world. But the seeds of that change were planted during the Plague.” (The seeds, said Tuchman, included questioning God, a general discontent with the Church, and the shifting of economic power toward the peasant.)
What are the seeds of COVID-19 pandemic that will help bring forth a new way of living? Without benefit of hindsight, it’s a tough question. We can, however, find some clues in Epidemic. Taken as a whole, the collection offers several meta-themes, such as:
- Epidemics are blunt reminders that the more we invade nature’s domain, the more nature invades ours. So, what is the future if the status quo is no longer sustainable?
- During plagues, people begin questioning how they make sense of the good life. This is not merely envy of material wealth or an upper-class lifestyle; rather, the old order no longer resonates with the common people.
- Plagues force us to question our belief that living with healthy-mindedness and good order is all we need.
The uncertainty attached to pandemic fatigue is only partially the result of an unknown end-date for the pandemic or confusing guidelines; it is also the uncertainty of how to live better. The mistrust of government attached to pandemic fatigue is only partially about screw-ups; it is also the recognition that the older generations have stuck the younger generations with policies and institutions that are not sustainable. The stress attached to pandemic fatigue is only partially the result of disrupted routines and fears of infection; it is also the result of a society in transition whose future is uncertain.
Badre, D. (2021, January 24). How we can deal with ‘pandemic fatigue’. Scientific American. [online].
Flinders, M. (2020, March 25). Coronavirus and the politics of crisis fatigue. The Conversation.
Global Alliance for Vaccines and Immunisation (2020, September 23). 10 reasons why pandemic fatigue could threaten global health in 2021.
Lapham, L. (Ed.). (2020, Summer). Epidemic, Lapham’s Quarterly, 13(3).
Michie, S., West, R., & Harvey, N. (2020). The concept of “fatigue” in tackling covid-19. British Medical Journal, 371, m4171. [online]. Doi: 10.1136/bmj.m4171
Reicher, S., & Drury, J. (2021). Pandemic fatigue? How adherence to covid-19 restrictions has been misrepresented and why it matters. British Medical Journal, 372, n137. [online]. Doi: 10.1136.bmj.n137