Op/Com: Pandemic Fatigue – The Reason We Struggle with COVID-19 Restrictions?

When the most recent partial lockdown was announced (i.e. “Phase 2 – Heightened Alert”, 16 May – 13 June 2021), I felt a tinge of anger. I had just gotten into the rhythm of going to exercise classes a few times each week, and felt robbed of my routine. An added sting came from the fact that the announcement came on the heels of Singapore preparing to further reduce pandemic restrictions. I felt like an athlete approaching the finish line ribbon, only to find it unceremoniously plucked from the ground before my eyes, and planted a few kilometres away. I felt upset, unsettled, and betrayed. Up till the last day before the lockdown began, I was maniacally booking and attending exercises classes. During one of my regular Friday evening Zoom meetings with a group of friends shortly after the partial lockdown began, I listened as they described feelings of hopelessness, tiredness, uncertainty, anxiety, and a yearning to get away. The fact that this was a shorter and less restrictive lockdown than the one that had taken place a year before (i.e. “Circuit Breaker”, 7 April – 1 June 2020) was not lost on us. Why did we feel worse though and, for me, less inclined to proactively curb my outdoor activity ahead of the announced deadline?

Lockdown, pandemic, or behavioural fatigue – this was how many described the mental and emotional impacts of Covid-related restrictions on themselves and others. A quick search on Wikipedia found pandemic fatigue to be defined as “the state of being worn out by recommended precautions and restrictions related to a pandemic…resulting in boredom, depression, psychic numbing…thereby leading one to abandoning these precautions and risk catching the disease”. [1] In a recent news article, Dr Geraldine Tan, a psychologist and director of a private practice, defined pandemic fatigue as “a feeling of exhaustion from the changes that the pandemic has brought about, as well as feeling a sense of dread and irritation with the constant news of the pandemic”. [2] Xenophobic and racist behaviour has also been deemed a “manifestation of pandemic fatigue”, according to Ms Diana, a counselling psychologist of another private practice. [3] It appeared that pandemic fatigue had been understood as being associated with emotions of negative valence, mental and emotional fatigue, a reluctance to adhere to pandemic restrictions, and to certain social ills. Some researchers, however, remained skeptical of whether pandemic fatigue accurately describes this phenomenon.  

“Rather than viewing this as an example of pandemic fatigue, they understood this to be a natural resistance towards restrictions that could threaten one’s livelihood.”

In an article by Michie, West & Harvey (2020), the authors asserted that surveys conducted in the UK provided little evidence for a reduced adherence to pandemic rules and restrictions over time. [4] They suggested instead that reduced adherence was linked to personal and social circumstances such as age, gender, living arrangements, and financial stability, than to reduced motivation over time. In particular, they highlighted how pandemic measures that were linked to increased financial stressors –  such as losses in jobs or pay – received less support. Rather than viewing this as an example of pandemic fatigue, they understood this to be a natural resistance towards restrictions that could threaten one’s livelihood. Reicher & Drury (2021) echoed the view that adherence to pandemic rules remained high and sought to explain the general perception that compliance to pandemic restrictions was low by citing the “availability effect”, or availability heuristic. [5] What this means is that we tend to judge the frequency of an event based on how salient it is in our memory. This could be as a result of such events appearing in the news or across social media platforms, and thus generating much attention. For example, many of us would easily recall the woman who claimed to be exempt from wearing a mask outdoors because she was a “sovereign” [6], the group of diners who verbally abused a safe distancing enforcement officer at Lau Pa Sat [7], and the man who refused to wear a mask on the MRT as he “hate[d] seeing uncles, grandads with the mask on.” [8] It could thus be easy for us to overestimate the frequency of pandemic regulation violations. Reicher & Drury (2021) further suggested that as we normalise such non-adherent behaviour, we may end up engaging in them too. [5]

Thus far, we have seen how poor adherence to pandemic rules and restrictions can be associated with real and immediate concerns about one’s livelihood or personal circumstances, one’s overestimation of the level of non-compliance to restrictions, and even one’s own beliefs about the normalcy of flouting pandemic restrictions. As new research about adherence to pandemic restrictions emerges, we are likely to discover more factors related to our likelihood of complying with pandemic restrictions. For example, a study by Götz, Gvirtz, Galinsky & Jachimowics (2020), which surveyed 101 005 individuals from 55 countries, found some interesting associations between personality factors and one’s likelihood of staying home during the pandemic. [9] Specifically, Individuals with more extroverted traits were less likely to adhere to restrictions to stay home, whereas those whose trait agreeableness and conscientiousness were high were more likely to do so. In light of these identified factors, what can we make of the concept of pandemic or behavioural fatigue?  

… behavioural fatigue may not be an actual phenomenon, but one which attempts to define itself through extrapolation from extant phenomena.

Some researchers, such as Harvey (2020), have proposed that behavioural fatigue may not be an actual phenomenon, but one which attempts to define itself through extrapolation from extant phenomena. He suggested that proponents of behavioural fatigue may have attempted to draw analogies between the former and the concepts of poor medication adherence, ego-depletion, or evacuation fatigue. [10] He concluded, however, that there was insufficient evidence to suggest that poor medication adherence was due to fatigue, and reported that findings based on the concept of ego-depletion remained unreplicated. And despite evacuations sharing similarities with quarantines, Harvey noted that this was not a perfect analogy. He observed that people who were aware that adhering to pandemic restrictions could reduce infection rates, were more likely to comply with them, as compared to people who could not change the frequency of natural disasters, despite adhering to evacuation measures.

In conclusion, “pandemic fatigue” appears to be inadequate to describe the complex phenomenon of interacting factors that form our impression that we become tired of following pandemic regulations over time. As a construct with an untested theoretical framework, and uncertain provenance, it may additionally perpetuate the unhelpful narrative that we have a limited capacity to prioritise the wider needs of our community when our personal needs and freedom are compromised. Indeed, Reicher and Drury (2021) have proposed that instead of headline stories of “fatigue and covidiots and house parties”, we would do well to consider the “remarkable and enduring resilience of the great majority of the population”. [5] Rather than focusing my own sense of being affronted, or resentment at having my allegedly limited amount of endurance tested, our collective strength and resilience is what I will consider the next time pandemic restrictions or lockdowns are announced.

Deborah

Literature cited: 

  1. https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Pandemic_fatigue
  2. https://www.channelnewsasia.com/news/singapore/guarding-against-pandemic-fatigue-in-singapore-covid-19-fight-14827308
  3. https://www.tnp.sg/news/singapore/pandemic-fatigue-concern-amid-flurry-abuse-incidents
  4. https://www.bmj.com/content/371/bmj.m4171
  5. https://www.bmj.com/content/372/bmj.n137 
  6. https://www.straitstimes.com/singapore/courts-crime/sovereign-woman-pleads-guilty-to-breaching-covid-19-regulations
  7. https://mothership.sg/2021/05/safe-distancing-ambassador-verbally-abused-lao-pa-sat/
  8. https://www.straitstimes.com/singapore/man-who-refused-to-wear-mask-on-mrt-arrested-for-allegedly-flouting-covid-19-safe
  9. https://www.cam.ac.uk/research/news/lockdown-or-not-personality-predicts-your-likelihood-of-staying-home-during-the-pandemic
  10. https://www.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/pmc/articles/PMC7674166/

Published by Blue. Psychological Services

Blue. is a non-commercial, non-profit initiative offering anonymous pro bono psychological consultation.

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