COVID-weary. COVID-tired. COVID-fatigued.
No matter how you chop it up, the feeling likely resonates for many at this point in the coronavirus pandemic. Months of isolation, fears and lifestyle changes have taken its toll. In turn, following COVID-19 safety guidelines has begun to feel like more and more of a challenge.
A new poll puts into perspective just how fatigued Canadians are. The poll, conducted by Ipsos, found nearly half of Canadians are getting tired of following public health recommendations and rules related to the virus. The feeling of burnout was most prominent in Quebec (52 per cent) and Alberta (53 per cent) and less so in British Columbia (34 per cent).
The challenge now — both for people and policymakers — is tackling it.
Igor Grossmann, psychology professor and director of the Wisdom and Culture Lab at the University of Waterloo, said understanding the situation at hand might help strengthen our resolve.
“We often get this ‘hunker down and get through it’ message,” he said. “But if we start accepting that this is a marathon situation, the sooner we develop meaning out of the situation.”
Falling off the bandwagon
Not only has the medley of measures imposed by countries plunged economies into a sharp contraction, it’s also had a profound impact on people’s psychological well-being. Nine months since the lockdown, rules and restrictions still keep many aspects of life fenced in. In a separate poll, 25 per cent of Canadians said their stress level is higher than during the first COVID-19 wave.
Understandably, “we’re exhausted,” said Steven Joordens, a psychology professor at the University of Toronto Scarborough.
High-stress situations often elicit a “fight-or-flight” response, he said, but that reaction is “meant to be short term.”
“When there’s a predator in front of you, you either take on the predator or get the heck away from them. Either way, 15 or 20 minutes and it’s over, and you come out of that state,” he said.
“We’ve had this predator staring in our face for months.”
What’s followed is a collective burnout or exhaustion, and everyone experiences it differently. Some may feel restless, irritable, lack motivation or have difficulty concentrating on tasks. Some people may find themselves withdrawing from socializing, while others might feel physical symptoms like changes in eating and sleep habits. Young people are particularly susceptible, according to Joordens.
The age divide is reflected in the Ipsos poll. Pandemic fatigue was highest among Generation Z (57 per cent), Millennials (50 per cent), and Generation X (53 per cent).
The burnout has become somewhat of an adversary for governments trying to quell a second wave of the virus.
Canada’s top doctor has repeatedly urged Canadians “not to give into COVID-19 fatigue.” So has the WHO. Its researchers estimate that about half the population of Europe is experiencing “pandemic fatigue” as infections surge yet again.
But the “stay home” message has expired, and experts worry the “greater good” or “we’re all in this together” message designed to keep people engaged has too.
“It’s very abstract,” said Grossmann. “For some people, it might work. But for individuals facing economic hardships because of the crisis, or people who are more concerned about simply surviving the next day with kids running around, that doesn’t resonate anymore.”
What needs to change?
For one, we need to acknowledge “things are different now,” said Samantha Yammine, a neuroscientist and science communicator.
Not only do we know far more about the virus than in March, we also have tools to make activities safer, said Yammine. She said too much of the focus has been the “no’s” and “you cant’s” despite the public appetite for wanting to do things, but do them safely.
“Fatigue comes from frustration.
“If we focus on what we can’t do rather than what we can, that’s why we fatigue. It feels very limiting.”
This is where adopting a harm reduction approach would be helpful, she said, both on an individual level and policy level.
“Every decision is a big task. … We’re at a point where should say, ‘Here’s how you reduce your risk as much as possible.'”
Yammine said people need to feel empowered to make a choice through the right information.
“I think then they’ll feel less trapped and hopefully less fatigued,” she said.
According to the recent polling, 93 per cent of Canadians say they’re doing their best to abide by public health recommendations and rules. Support for safety measures also remains high. On masks, nearly 86 per cent of Canadians say they support the mandatory wearing of face masks when in public, with younger Canadians even more likely to be wearing them when out-and-about.
“We’re in this process of modifying all of our habits, and it will get easier,” said Joordens.
He said it was trickiest when things first reopened, which might have sent out mixed signals. When governments opted to open bars, restaurants and gyms, even with new rules, he said some people might have interpreted that as these places being safe or safer.
“Habits are triggered by the environment. So as soon as you go back into that bar, everything about it triggers you to behave like you did the last time you were there,” he said.
“The hope is that we develop new habits over time to keep up with the changes.”
But it won’t be easy, said Grossmann. He said the vagueness in some of the ever-changing recommendations deviates from the core message — that “this won’t be over anytime soon.”
“Not every situation is alike, but we need to figure out how to balance something that is challenging in different ways across different provinces and different municipalities,” he said.
“You don’t want a new rule to come in and have people say, ‘Well, that doesn’t apply to me.'”
What can you do personally?
A looming winter will provide an extra challenge, experts agree. Weariness over restrictions might grow as cold weather forces people indoors.
It comes down to arming yourself with the “basics,” said Joordens — a good night’s sleep, good nutrition and routine exercise.
“Leading a random life makes our body unhappy,” he said. “You have to find activities that bring you to a better place mentally.”
Before the snow piles up, think about ways to get outdoors in advance, he said. And once it does, make sure you stay connected socially.
“I recommend the phone because people actually pay attention when they’re talking to you on the phone,” he said with a laugh.
It’s also good to remember that we’re not perfect, said Yammine.
“We’re still going to face tough decisions. It’s still going to feel exhausting,” she said. But keeping up with the twist-and-turns of pandemic rules and recommendations is “like any goal you can set.”
“A New Year’s resolution, even,” she said.
“People often say you give up on your resolution the first time you slip up — but that’s not the right thinking. Just because maybe you have more riskier encounter or you just don’t care one day, it doesn’t mean you can’t do better the next.”
“Risk is cumulative. It doesn’t need to be all or nothing. We can try again.”
These are some of the findings of an Ipsos poll conducted between October 23-26, 2020, on behalf of Global News. For this survey, a sample of 1,000 Canadians aged 18+ was interviewed online. Quotas and weighting were employed to ensure that the sample’s composition reflects that of the Canadian population according to census parameters. The precision of Ipsos online polls is measured using a credibility interval. In this case, the poll is accurate to within ± 3.5 percentage points, 19 times out of 20, had all Canadians aged 18+ been polled. The credibility interval will be wider among subsets of the population. All sample surveys and polls may be subject to other sources of error, including, but not limited to coverage error, and measurement error.