On June 21 (Dispatch 87), I wrote: “So, bored, tired, lonely perhaps, and physically, mentally, and emotionally weary, we let things slip. And the virus wins.”
There’s a term for this,pandemic fatigue , and as the second wave roils Europe, and the third the US, everyone is talking about it.
“Pandemic fatigue is real — and it’s spreading.” That’s in Tuesday’s Wall Street Journal. “Sick of Covid-19? Here’s why you might have pandemic fatigue.” That’s in the conversation.com from October 23. “As the Coronavirus surges, a new culprit emerges: Pandemic fatigue.” That’s from October 17’s New York Times.
And on Monday, World Health Organization (WHO) director general Tedros Adhanom Ghebreyesus spoke of pandemic fatigue. “Working from home, children being schooled remotely, not being able to celebrate milestones with friends and family or not being there to mourn loved ones — it’s tough and the fatigue is real,” he said.
The problem has become serious enough for WHO to, earlier in October, release a document titled “Pandemic fatigue: Reinvigorating the public to prevent Covid-19”. In the document, WHO actually defined pandemic fatigue.
“Pandemic fatigue is… demotivation to follow recommended protective behaviours, emerging gradually over time and affected by a number of emotions, experiences and perceptions,” the document said.
It “is expressed through an increasing number of people not sufficiently following recommendations and restrictions, decreasing their effort to keep themselves informed about the pandemic, and having lower risk perceptions related to Covid-19,” the document added.
It would be alright if Covid fatigue involved merely how people feel; unfortunately, this also extends to how people behave, and it is behaviour that puts them and others at risk. Still worse, because their behaviour is directly correlated with a rise in infections, governments may be forced to react by imposing restrictions on movement and activities, even a partial lockdown (most countries are very averse to going down the total or hard lockdown path again). And when this happens, a population that is already in the grip of pandemic fatigue is unlikely to listen. That’s happening in Europe and the US, and it is happening in India too.
So, what should governments and administrators do? As WHO’s DG put it on Monday: “We cannot give up… Leaders must balance the disruption to lives and livelihoods with the need to protect health workers and health systems as intensive care fills up.”
Enforcement may not work in all cases and may end up being counterproductive.
The problem will be familiar to behavioral economists, though. In 2012, Niranjan Rajadhyaksha, then Mint’s executive editor, wrote an article titled “How behavioural science can reduce deaths on railway tracks”.
In the article, Rajadhyaksha detailed how Final Mile Consulting, a firm headed by Biju Dominic that used behavioural economics, cognitive neurology and anthropology to shape people’s behaviour, did this in one part of Mumbai – “The Final Mile team hung around the most lethal crossings for several weeks, melting into the crowd,” says Dominic, “like method actors living the character.”
“They quickly noticed that the people crossing the tracks were overconfident, one of the biases that behavioural scientists say are hard-wired into our brains, the same bias that ensures that equity analysts overestimate corporate earnings or cigarette smokers refuse to believe they can be struck down by cancer” Rajadhyaksha wrote.
It’s the same overconfidence that makes people believe that they are unlikely to contract Covid-19, or assume that they are safe because most people who do get infected are either asymptomatic or experience only mild symptoms.
I won’t tell you how Final Mile solved the rail crossing problem. You can read about it yourself by scanning the QR code with this column.
The WHO document actually has some interesting pointers for administrators on how to “allow people to live their lives, but reduce the risk” — for it is the disruption to their lives that is perhaps the biggest contributor to pandemic fatigue. This involves: differentiating “between lower-risk and higher-risk activities”; guidelines on carrying “on with life while reducing the risk of transmission”; proactively planning for “end-of-the-year celebrations”; avoid cancelling all cultural events and find “creative solutions” to host them; and “avoid judgment and blame.” It’s always toughest to protect people from themselves.