Yes, pandemic fatigue is an issue, experts say. Will Omicron make it worse?

Alberta Premier Jason Kenney recently said that, despite the rapid spread of the Omicron variant across the country, Canadians may be at their “outer limits” of what further public-health restrictions they’re willing to accept.

“Widespread non-compliance,” he told the National Post, was harming the credibility of public-health measures and that many Albertans “have just tuned us out.”

That tune-out is part of what’s described as “pandemic fatigue” — the weariness among some people to abide by more coronavirus-related restrictions and public health measures as the pandemic drags on. 

But some experts say it’s still unclear what role that fatigue might play in people ignoring the new round of restrictions being implemented against Omicron.

“It remains to be seen,” said Jason Harley, an assistant professor in the department of surgery at McGill University in Montreal, whose research focuses on psychological well-being and education.

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“I think it could differ by people. Psychology is a big kind of tricky field because there’s so much variation between individuals.”

What makes pandemic fatigue so challenging “are all the psychological aspects to it,” they said.

“Those are things that we need to be really attentive to,” Harley said. “To have to hear the word ‘restriction’ again — that’s nearly a trigger word. And we know when it comes to emotions that emotions can really get in the way of processing information and tending to information properly.”

As early as May 2020, before the introduction of vaccines and just a half a year into the lockdowns, the World Health Organization (WHO) was warning that member states across Europe were reporting emerging pandemic fatigue in their populations “that poses a serious threat to efforts to control the spread of the virus.”

“The perceived threat of the virus may decrease as people become used to its existence,” WHO wrote in a report. 

Steven Taylor, a psychiatry professor at the University of British Columbia and author of The Psychology of Pandemics, says his research has found that, while people have become increasingly distressed over 2020 and 2021, most are adhering to pandemic restrictions.

Police use water cannon to disperse demonstrators as clashes erupt during a protest against the Belgian government’s measures to curb the spread of the COVID-19, in Brussels, on Dec. 5. (Kenzo Tribouillard/AFP/Getty Images)

‘They’re done with it’

But there’s this growing minority of people who are saying that they’re done with it and are increasingly not adhering to guidelines,” he said. 

“So I think Premier Kenney has a point.”

In psychological terms, Taylor referred to pandemic fatigue as a low-grade chronic stress reaction.

“People are social animals. You put them under chronic stress and you block their access to social avenues, you’ll see things like an increase in irritability non-adherence,” he said.

Taylor and colleagues recently submitted for publication their study, titled Who Develops Pandemic Fatigue?, in which they surveyed nearly 6,000 Canadians and Americans.

He said they found that while many people are “burnt out” on COVID and COVID-related news, many are still adhering to social distancing and travel restrictions.

“It’s like, ‘We’re sick of it. We hate it, but we’ve got to do it anyway.’ Most people are on board,” he said. 

However, the researchers also discovered that pandemic fatigue affects “a substantial minority of people” who tended to have “greater levels of emotional burnout, pessimism, apathy, and cynical or negative beliefs” about the pandemic.

The research found these people were more “narcissistic, entitled, and gregarious” and more likely to report having been infected with SARS-CoV-2, which they regarded as an “exaggerated” threat.

“In other words, pandemic fatigue was associated with heightened self-interest to the expense of community needs,” the study says. 

A related problem — desensitization to COVID-19 — was explored in a recent opinion piece in the New York Times by Adam Grant, a professor and organizational psychologist at the Wharton School of the University of Pennsylvania. Grant referred to a recent Ipsos poll of Americans that found despite Omicron’s risks, only 23 per cent said they were likely to cancel their holiday plans, and only 28 per cent said they were likely to stop gathering with others outside their households.

Unlike the beginning of the pandemic, “many people aren’t so afraid of COVID-19 anymore,” he wrote.  

“The seemingly constant flow of emergency alerts has dulled many people’s fear response to this pandemic, leading them to let down their guard, relax their restrictions and masking habits or even refuse potentially lifesaving vaccines.”

That has led to a form of “systematic desensitization.”

“At this point, it’s as if we had built up antibodies against fear.”

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