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What Is COVID Fatigue?

Pandemic fatigue is a complex of emotions that includes sadness and boredom.

In July 2020, a motorcycle rally brought hundreds of thousands of bikers to Sturgis, South Dakota. Officials such as the governor made no attempt to discourage attendance despite the fact that COVID-19 was a serious problem in other states. By October, South Dakota and North Dakota had the highest rates of cases per capita in the United States.

Such events raise questions about the thinking of the people who spread the deadly coronavirus and the thinking of leaders who make policy decisions about how to control that spread. Why did the bikers ignore the risks of catching COVID-19? Why did officials not take action to stop people from putting themselves at risk? Because the spread of the disease depends heavily on the behaviors and choices of individual people, psychology is an important contributor to the understanding and treatment of pandemics. The scientific study of pandemics requires the cooperation of many medical fields including virology, epidemiology, and pulmonology. The impact of behavior on disease spread shows that psychology belongs in the collaboration.

Here are some of the questions that psychology should help to answer.

  1. Why do scientists believe that COVID-19 is caused by the novel coronavirus and that wearing masks is a helpful measure for controlling it?
  2. Why do some ordinary people and leaders deny COVID-19 risks and reject effective measures?
  3. Why do some individuals and leaders make bad decisions about COVID-19 and how could their decision-making be improved?
  4. How can doubtful people be convinced that COVID-19 is a serious problem that needs to be handled with strong measures such as lockdowns and wearing masks?
  5. Why do some people who believe that COVID-19 is a serious problem nevertheless take dangerous risks?

Psychologists’ attempts to answer these questions can draw on the other fields of cognitive science, including neuroscience for brain processes, computer modeling for working out mechanisms, anthropology for cross-cultural understanding, and philosophy for normative questions concerning how people ought to think.

Question #5 concerns people who have a good understanding of the seriousness of COVID-19 but nevertheless violate desirable health practices such as social distancing. Failures to comply with health recommendations are often attributed to pandemic fatigue, which is not really fatigue because it does not involve being physically tired. Rather, COVID-19 fatigue is a complex of emotions that include boredom, loneliness, sadness, frustration, anxiety, fear, anger, and resentment, all brought on by the loss of activities and social relations produced by pandemic restrictions.

People who are aware of the dangers of COVID-19 and appreciate the required public health interventions can nevertheless experience these negative emotions. Pandemic fatigue can lead to undesirable behaviors when people try to overcome bad feelings through actions that violate social restrictions. For example, people who are bored and lonely may seek out dangerous social contacts such as large parties and crowded bars. People who are angry and resentful about government restrictions may reject useful actions such as wearing masks.

Cognitive science offers theories of emotions that suggest remedies for the complex of negative emotions that constitutes pandemic fatigue. Emotions about a situation result when the brain integrates bodily signals such as rapid heart rate with cognitive appraisals of the significance of the current situation to one's goals. Hence changing emotions is a matter of altering situations, bodily reactions to situations, and evaluations of situations. Accordingly, people suffering from pandemic fatigue can change their situations by adopting new safe activities such as reading more, change their bodily states using techniques such as exercise and meditation, and change their appraisal of their situation by appreciating that pandemic restrictions are necessary and temporary.

Psychological experiments are required to determine whether diminishing pandemic fatigue in these ways will help to reduce violation of public health restrictions. In cases where the sadness in pandemic fatigue is so severe that it amounts to persistent depression, then people may need to be treated with psychotherapy and antidepressant medication.

People may have good intentions about following public health initiatives such as social distancing but fail to act in accordance with their intentions. Psychologists have identified an effective technique for overcoming intention-action gaps called implementation intentions, which are conscious if-then rules that can help people to overcome the temptation-driven unconscious decisions that go against what they really want. For example, someone who is worried about partying can form the intention: If I am invited to a party, I will decline and contact close friends for video chats. A neurocomputational mechanism by which implementation intentions can help to overcome intention-action gaps has been identified. Psychological research is required to determine whether such implementation intentions can improve people's behaviors with respect to COVID-19.