Pandemic Fatigue and the Light at the End of the Tunnel

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A man and a woman walk and discuss facing covid pandemic fatigue

America is finally seeing a drop in cases after a lengthy battle with a rogue flu virus, but the war isn’t over yet. Still, people are weary of the measures that slowed illness and fatalities. They resist social distancing and mask wearing, and business owners lament the brutal toll on the economy. Pandemic fatigue causes grumbling and less compliance with mitigation measures...and sickness and death ticks upward once again.

No, I’m not describing 2021. That’s a summary of the mid-point of the 1918 flu pandemic, as described by J. Alexander Navarro in The Conversation. That event played out in an eerily similar fashion, albeit without the promise of vaccines. Pandemic fatigue’s effects are similar, whether they crop up in an era when phones are a luxury or when they’re smart devices connected to a world of knowledge (and cat videos).

Pandemic Fatigue Takes Over

Just a little over a year ago, we were wearing masks and in lockdown, fearing an unseen enemy that shattered normalcy in a matter of weeks. Now, the virus continues to circulate and mutate, but our caution is numbed by pandemic fatigue and a desire to return to some version of pre-pandemic life. The New York Times reports that almost everyone in the United States who wants a vaccine has gotten one. The Centers for Disease Control (CDC) is loosening guidelines. HR company Zenefits says states are rapidly lifting restrictions. People are taking more chances, even as more virulent virus variations threaten to reignite the blaze.

Pharmaceutical Game Changers

Vaccines help those with pandemic fatigue to feel more comfortable returning to many activities they’ve eschewed for the past year. NPR reports that as of mid-May, over 30% of American adults were fully vaccinated, and almost half had gotten at least one dose. According to the CDC, all three vaccines in use in the United States offer impressive protection from infection or serious health consequences in those who still catch COVID-19.

We’re Not Victorious Yet

Even with all the positives, pharmaceutical companies are already warning of the impending need for a booster because of emerging variants. According to CNBC, Johnson & Johnson CEO Alex Gorsky predicted that COVID-19 vaccines will likely become an annual ritual, along with flu shots. CNBC also reports that a vicious COVID-19 variant is ravaging India and could jump to other areas, much like the more transmissible U.K. B.1.1.7 variant that became dominant in the U.S. in April.

Even if boosters combat the variants, no vaccine is 100% effective. Inoculated people can still get COVID-19 and transmit the virus to others, including the 34% of currently unvaccinated Americans who said in an Associated Press poll that they definitely won’t get the shot. How does this tie into pandemic fatigue, and could it threaten our hard-won gains?

An Inevitable Consequence

According to the World Health Organization (WHO), pandemic fatigue is a natural human reaction to a public health crisis that keeps dragging on and on and on (WHO pdf source). The problem is exacerbated by measures like masks and social distancing that were implemented to stop the virus’s spread. The CDC now says that vaccinated people can resume many normal activities unmasked, which raises the temptation for unvaccinated people to follow suit.

Unfortunately, history shows us that pandemic fatigue could lead to devastating consequences. J. Alexander Navarro noted that the 1918 flu came roaring back in a third deadly wave, followed by a fourth, after people grew weary of prevention measures, and businesses and schools clamored to return to normal. Just as today, Americans in the 1918 to 1920 period grew tired of masking, avoiding restaurants and entertainment venues, and enjoying other pleasures that were put on hold.

One key difference in the 1918 pandemic is that there were no flu vaccines to offer a ray of hope. At that time, deaths from illnesses like the flu, measles and tuberculosis were everyday facts of life. That likely fueled the fatigue via an attitude of, “Well, that’s inevitable.” We’re lucky that powerful advances in medicine shield us from the harsh realities that jaded our ancestors.

Combating Pandemic Fatigue

WHO has some great suggestions for combating pandemic fatigue and fueling a return to normalcy that makes sense in higher education as well as in broader society (WHO pdf source).

1. Understand People

WHO points out that science is the best framework for crafting policies and messages. While some people are adamant about not getting vaccinated, others may change their minds if treated with empathy. Michigan Health suggests that people share their stories of having COVID-19 and their experiences getting vaccinated. This shows that the virus’s impact is real and normalizes the vaccine experience.

2. Engage People as Part of the Solution

It’s part of the independent American mindset to resist restrictions. That’s an even more common reaction now that we’ve been impeded for over a year without definitely defeating the virus. Instead of dictating what pandemic-weary people must do, ask for their ideas and use them to guide policy. You’ll get more buy-in when people feel heard and see that you take their fatigue and desire to return to normal seriously.

WHO also urges appealing to people rather than using scare tactics or threats. It’s not effective to blame and shame with statements like, “You’re responsible for killing others if you won’t wear a mask.” Instead, try, “It’s great that you can help save lives and protect vulnerable people when you wear a mask.”

3. Let People Live Their Lives, but Reduce Risk

Find out what’s most important to them and focus on accommodating that as safely as possible. For example, can certain events or get-togethers be moved outside or to indoor venues with appropriate ventilation and social distancing?

4. Acknowledge the Hardships and How They’ve Affected People’s Feelings

Pandemic fatigue is almost as pervasive as the virus itself, and like COVID-19, it’s not about to disappear. A sensible approach acknowledges that people are sick and tired of lockdowns, restrictions, canceled events and missing their family and friends. Everyone can use a little empathy for how it’s affected their lives as we move slowly but surely towards the day when, if not vanquished, the enemy is at least under control, and we can live our lives to the fullest again.

Dr. Barbara LesniakDr. Barbara Lesniak is an associate dean on the social sciences team at Southern New Hampshire University. She handles the programming side of the undergraduate and graduate psychology programs. Her past experience includes 15 years designing and delivering classroom and web-based courses in the corporate world and providing face-to-face and online counseling services. She specialized in helping online clients in acute crisis situations. Lesniak is also a freelance writer focusing on financial and personal development topics. She has a PsyD in psychology and completed her MFA at Southern New Hampshire University in 2020.

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