This article was originally published on VICE Italy.
Ah good, here we are again, riding another peak of the pandemic and back under a national lockdown.
Thing is, unlike the first lockdown – which sucked for all the obvious reasons, but was at least novel – this time we also have the added exhaustion of almost a year’s worth of coronavirus commentary and speculation, on top of the feeling that we’re back to square one.
If you recognise that feeling, you’re not alone. The phenomenon has been popping up all over the world, and it has a name: “pandemic fatigue”. According to a survey by the World Health Organisation, at least 60 percent of interviewees said they felt exhausted by the health emergency and the related restrictions. Similar findings were reported by The Economist.
The WHO also reported that the majority of Europeans still support national responses to COVID-19 – but there’s a real risk of people losing trust in the measures, said WHO Regional Director for Europe Hans Kluge, which could lead to them viewing the restrictions as too high a price to pay in exchange for slowing the spread of the virus. Naturally, the implications of this are enormous.
To understand pandemic fatigue and how to deal with it, I spoke to psychologist Renato Troffa.
WHAT IS PANDEMIC FATIGUE?
Troffa says there’s a risk of developing something called “learned helplessness”, when we think we’ve moved past something bad, only for it to return, i.e. coming out of lockdown, and then diving headfirst back into it.
“We lose our sense of control, which then amplifies the negative impact of events and affects our motivation,” he explains. The constant mental effort we need to exert is draining our energy, and lots of people are now showing more symptoms of “fear, anxiety, loneliness, frustration, burnout and disillusion”.
Naturally, this has consequences on a societal level. Troffa says we can observe this in people having “less motivation to work or carry out our normal activities”, “increased aggression” and withdrawing from social life (or what’s left of it).
THE EFFECTS ON OUR PHYSICAL HEALTH
In one sense, pandemic fatigue is a completely normal reaction to what’s going on. “When a state of alert is extended for a long time and without an end in sight, people tend to adapt to the fear,” the psychologist explains.
It’s understandable, he says, that people might choose to let their guard down when it comes to restrictions and following the rules, if only to “provide some relief from the stress affecting our mind and bodies”.
But adopting a fatalist attitude can actually just lead to even more stress, which can in turn put our physical health at risk. It can also lead to a tendency for people to rely on “simplified or false information”, to try to justify why they’ve lowered their guard. If you have a friend or family member lost in coronavirus conspiracy theories, this could possibly explain it.
Troffa also argues that our increased levels of frustration can lead to “more aggression and anger” – something we tend to hide under normal conditions, “because it’s not socially acceptable or useful”.
The big question is: what can we do to avoid the “fatigue” getting the better of us? Should we just accept the end of normality for now, given that we still have a long time to wait for the vaccines to take effect? Or should we just lock ourselves inside 24/7?
HOW CAN WE DEAL WITH PANDEMIC FATIGUE?
There’s no magic answer, but there are a few things we can do, both at an individual and societal level. For our personal health, Troffa says, it’s essential that we pay “greater attention to recognising, managing and communicating our emotions”, as well as “expressing them in a functional manner”, before they build up and cause harm to us or the people around us.
The other fundamental thing we can do is try to reduce our stress levels and give our bodies a break. Troffa cites WHO guidelines on self-care interventions for health, which include sticking to a routine, maintaining “social connections” (without forcing things, but also without isolating ourselves) and limiting our exposure to misleading information about the pandemic by reading only reliable sources.
But pandemic fatigue has a collective dimension too, and that should be dealt with on an institutional level. The WHO has also identified several key strategies for governments, including mobilising the population in the virus containment strategy and considering people as part of the solution, not as enemies to be spied on or hunted down (as we saw in some countries during the first wave); helping people reduce risk and supporting their needs; and recognising the great sacrifices that citizens have made so far.
Finally, thinking about the future can actually help you deal with fatigue, at least in the short-term. As Troffa says: “It’s normal to have that voice in your head saying there’s no future, but our life will go back to the way it was, and that’s something we need to remind ourselves of.”