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Fighting pandemic fatigue: we can’t get complacent

By Hailie Pentleton

It’s tempting to abandon pandemic precautions, but we have to resist the urge. 

When the first few cases reached Scottish shores, my partner and I began shielding informally, just a week before they officially called lockdown. He’s high risk, I’m hyper-vigilant by nature; it made sense. I quickly developed the habit of calling on my good pal Alexa for the news every half hour, unable to concentrate on anything else. A few weeks into lockdown, I disclosed this ritual to a friend who admitted that she had been avoiding the news, for the most part, explaining that watching the cases rise put her on edge. This was also the reason she had taken to avoiding social media, rampant with apocalyptic opinion pieces and budding conspiracy theorists. I realised not long after that memorising every piece of pandemic related news was doing nothing more than making me ill and gradually abandoned the habit. 

You don’t have to watch every single briefing or memorize every new statistic you encounter in the morning papers. But you do have to care. 

Toilet roll hoarding and Thursday evening claps now seem a lifetime ago. The wartime imagery has been abandoned, and the warm collectivist spirit of the early days of the pandemic seems to have worn off. People are tired. The rules are murkier than the original instructions to “Stay Home. Protect the NHS. Save Lives.” While the number of cases creeps back up, people have started to become weary and resentful of pandemic precautions, especially when these precautions are constantly in flux. Though another lockdown as restrictive as the first seems it would do more harm than necessary, at the very least there were clear-cut rules about what you could and couldn’t do. Now there’s a widespread perception that guidelines can be undermined on a case by case basis, or that current rules around meeting with other households are contradictory. Scepticism is spreading, and with it a sense of pandemic fatigue. 

A lifetime ago, we volleyed the term “Brexit fatigue” back and forth across discourse around our divorce from the EU. Despite the magnitude of the situation, an oversaturation of discussion around Brexit began to grind down the interest of the public. The second polling stations closed, the decision-making process was taken from our hands; the outcome of Brexit, ever-looming, is beyond our control. People get bored. Bombarded with case numbers and new restrictions, pandemic coverage seems to have a similar effect. There is a growing sense of boredom around the pandemic, that fails to be challenged by unclear guidelines. And while we often feel helpless in the face of an invisible force, unlike with Brexit, our actions do have tangible effects. 

“The collective solidarity of ‘we’re all in this together’ is a really important part of people following challenging restrictions,” Professor Susan Michie, a member of Sage, told The Observer, “but adherence is being undermined by many kinds of perceived unfairness.” The hypocrisy of figures like Dominic Cummings and Margaret Ferrier has wrought havoc on public confidence in the legitimacy of local and national powers and the rules they prescribe to the general public. 

I remember the rage I felt when Dominic Cummings stood in that rose garden and defended his jaunt to Barnard Castle. It had been three months since I’d seen my grandpa, who would pass two weeks later. I sobbed like a child. I was scared. Not because I felt that our shielding efforts were in vain, but because I recognised this as the start of a gradual erosion of public confidence in pandemic precautions. 

We can and should recognise that, by and large, the fault lies with a lack of precautions, financial support, and initial acknowledgment from the UK government. There is plenty of space for criticism, but that doesn’t remove the personal responsibility we have towards one another to protect lives. Current restrictions appear to be failing, and it is often difficult to believe that our individual actions will have any significant influence. When we observe other people becoming complacent, it can be easy to trick ourselves into believing things are safe. I see people off on group holidays and I wonder if they know something I don’t. Did I really miss the last three months of my grandpa’s life for nothing other than weight gain and isolation? Maybe things aren’t that bad after all. 

But they are. 

If we continue to let our guard down, this disease will only continue to wreak havoc on our lives for a longer period of time. It is exhausting to stay on high alert all the time, and it easy to become complacent as time goes on and things seem to stay the same. You’re allowed to be mad, and resentful, and tired, and bored. But we don’t get to decide when we’re “over” a pandemic. It takes a commitment to act mindfully, to observe precautions, and to accept that – whether we like it or not – for now, we’re in it for the long haul. 


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