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Latest lockdown needs to take very real pandemic fatigue into account

Most businesses were closed last Friday and Sunday due to the Easter weekend. Some did a booming business Saturday as people rushed to get their shopping fix between the two holidays. Others were simply out of luck Saturday as the province’s latest lockdown kicked in, forcing them to remain shuttered indefinitely yet again.

For a holiday weekend, however, there were large numbers of people out and about, shopping or otherwise. Whether lining up for fish and chips Friday or gathering in the park on a sunny Sunday afternoon, many of us simply weren’t going to be shut-ins, regardless of Doug Ford’s emergency brake analogy.

It’s pandemic fatigue, plain and simple. After a year, many of us are ready to move forward, even if the virus isn’t cooperating on that front, mutating to stay ahead in the race.

At the heart of the matter is the return of milder weather. We need little coaxing to stay inside and apart from others in the midst of winter’s chill, but spring means getting out again, indulging in the time of renewal. We’re less inclined to let the pandemic stand in the way, and the same applies to the pandemic precautions espoused by public officials.

Then there’s the raw calculus of risks, numbers of deaths, business failures and economic woes, with each of us coming up with a different assessment … and acting accordingly, no matter what “they” are saying. We’re more inclined to tune out the advice, and to chafe at the restrictions.

There’s no facet of our lives that haven’t been touched by the coronavirus pandemic. For the luckiest among us, attempts to curb the spread of the virus have been simply an inconvenience. For those less lucky, there’s been a big financial hit, particularly if they’ve lost their livelihoods. The unluckiest have lost loved ones or even their own lives. It’s such scenarios that we have to keep in mind as we assess the latest lockdown.

The longer the pandemic has dragged on, the more we’ve normalized the situation, leading to fatigue and the willingness to perhaps take more risks. That’s a normal reaction, argues Dr. David Dozois, a professor of psychology and psychiatry and director of the Clinical Psychology Graduate Program at the University of Western Ontario.

“Early in the pandemic, many people were extremely concerned. They didn’t know what COVID-19 was, how bad things would get and how to best deal with this issue. They received information from the Public Health Agency of Canada and local health authorities about how to manage this virus and stay safe; they took necessary precautions,” he says in a recent paper.

“As time passed many people experienced caution fatigue – feeling less motivated or inclined to follow expert advice about COVID-19 and growing more tired of physical distancing, maintaining good hand hygiene, following the arrows at local grocery stores and wearing masks.”

Facing our fears is a good way of getting over public speaking, for instance, but is a double-edged sword when it comes to keeping people cautious about the pandemic, says Dozois.

“I think about when I visited Walmart at the beginning of the pandemic — people were maintaining distance and following the arrows; after a while, people were being less careful and not paying attention to the very things that were keeping them safe. When the pandemic first broke, the numbers weren’t nearly as staggering as they are currently, yet most people feel less anxious now than they did at the beginning of the pandemic.

“A second reason that people may be experiencing caution fatigue is because they can only remain vigilant for so long before they start to become exhausted. In addition, people are social beings, wired to be loved, to love and to belong. It is no wonder that people are finding physical distancing so difficult.”

That reality means public officials have to shift gears to allow people an outlet, argues Dr. Zain Chagla, an infectious diseases physician at St. Joseph’s Healthcare in Hamilton.

“Can you really realistically think that people can wait it out at home without any interactions outside of their household for another three months? Or can you at least start prioritizing and building in low risk stuff, so that you give people the sense of normalcy?” he told the CBC last month.

“If you allow them to take that small risk, you’re preventing the people that are going to fatigue and say, ‘Well, I’m just going to have my family over, we’ve been fine, we’ve been isolating for weeks, I deserve this,’ and then have COVID transmission that way.”

The World Health Organisation says it considers pandemic fatigue as an expected and natural reaction to the prolonged nature of the crisis and the associated inconvenience and hardship, but notes our move towards a more laissez faire approach is a serious threat to efforts to control the spread of the virus. Until a vaccine or effective treatments are available, public support and protective behaviours remain critical for containing the virus, the agency says, a position staked by most public health officials.

Ontario is in the latest iteration of a lockdown largely because people aren’t following the rules and guidelines established to slow the spread of the virus. We’ve tuned out the message, with the government in turn stepping up the restrictions to slow down our ability to undermine efforts to slow down the virus.

It will be interesting to see how officials move to enforce the new lockdown. The public’s fatigue likely translates into less tolerance for heavy-handed enforcement. Public acceptance is the crucial part of any regulation. Without it, there’s no level of imposition that will bring compliance.

To be sure, egregious flouting of the rules, say by large gatherings at unnecessary social events, shouldn’t be an issue. There’s more of a grey area with businesses that have been hammered by mitigation efforts, with a public more sympathetic to what is, has been and will be an existential threat to many small businesses. The court of public opinion won’t be kind to overzealous enforcement.

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