The year 2020 has introduced various new, and some unpleasant, concepts to our daily lives. We are not used to wearing masks regularly, always maintaining a social distance from people, washing our hands and sanitizing frequently. Perhaps the worst offender has been being locked inside our homes for days, usually spending most of that time in front of a screen. As the global pandemic approaches its one-year mark, it is entirely natural to feel burnout and fatigue from these precautions and restrictions, according to psychologist Carisa Parrish at Johns Hopkins Children’s Center.
The World Health Organization (WHO) defines pandemic fatigue as a natural and expected reaction to a prolonged public health crisis. Hardships, restrictions and invasive measures and their scale and severity have caused unprecedented impacts on people’s daily lives. As these factors continue for months, people settle in and the perceived threat of the virus may decrease, said the revised version of the WHO’s November report on pandemic fatigue. It also reported that as the precautions drag on, people feel less motivated to abide by them due to feelings of complacency, alienation and hopelessness.
Role of governments
The emotional toll of the precautions, restrictions and isolation on everyone from children to young university students to elderly people has been significant. The individual experiences of the public need to be addressed, read a statement from Dr. Hans Henri P. Kluge, regional director for Europe at the WHO. Kluge released the statement after a meeting between European states to discuss the role government should take due to growing concerns over pandemic fatigue.
Kluge encouraged governments to engage with the public when it comes to COVID-19 precautions and restrictions. “Consultation, participation and an acknowledgment of the hardships that people are facing are key if we are to have truly effective policies," he said. These are important steps to reduce fatigue and the feeling of burnout that the pandemic is causing throughout the world.
He then gave examples of states that successfully communicated with their citizens, having discussions so the public can better understand why restrictions are necessary. Citing a municipality from Denmark, he explained how they “invited young students to work with them to determine the most appropriate way to preserve the student experience while protecting communities,” as universities reopened in the country.
He went on to give the example of the Turkish government’s efforts to engage with their citizens. “In Turkey, social media polls are being used to connect with the community and better understand non-compliance with protective measures to inform and evolve COVID-19 policy and introduce supportive communication or services to reinvigorate positive public response," he said.
Responsibilities of individuals
As governments take steps to ease the stress of their citizens, it is essential that individuals encourage themselves and keep motivated, suggests Parrish, adding that drawing parallels from their past behavior and habits can be helpful – just like when you start learning to ride a bike and instruct yourself to wear a helmet until it becomes a habit, or when you give your child driving lessons and the first thing you teach them is to put their seatbelt on.
"As with these examples, it is important to have a clear intention and commitment when it comes to sanitizing, social distancing and wearing a mask," Parrish said. The key is repeating the process until it is second nature. After that, it will become instinctive, said Parrish. “So, when it comes to COVID-19 protection, you just commit to it, and then over time, you find you’re putting your mask on or washing your hands without thinking.”
Here are some suggestions from Parrish to protect you from both the virus and its psychological effects through effective stress management.
Keep necessary supplies at hand
It is essential that you keep masks and hand sanitizers close by or somewhere easy to access. The extra effort in looking for a mask needs to be eliminated as over time it adds to the overall frustration of wearing one. “(R)educe barriers to wearing one,” Parrish said. “I have several masks and keep them in various places.” The same idea applies to hand sanitizers, having several small bottles in various spots, particularly with you, can encourage frequent use.
Be open to following science, measures
COVID-19 is a relatively new viral infection, with scientific insights and preventative measures evolving as scientists learn and analyze more. This leads to changes in advice from time to time, sometimes daily.
For example, contrary to what we thought at the start of the pandemic, you do not need to wipe every grocery item down when you get home but you do need to wear a mask when you are in the car, even if alone.
It may be hard, but it is necessary to keep up with expert opinions. “Sticking with reliable, trustworthy information is essential,” Parrish warned. “New facts are emerging as we learn more and more about this virus. In the meantime, it makes sense to use the understanding we have.”
Stories and their impact
Although COVID-19 has impacted everyone's lives, it still seems like an abstract concept to many, particularly if they have not lost anybody to the virus. “The risk might not feel real to them," Parrish remarked.
When becoming sick does not feel like a real possibility, “You just don’t feel like wearing a mask or saying no to things you like to do,” but it is vital to realize and remind ourselves of the reality that COVID-19 can affect anyone. It can be helpful in these circumstances to read and research stories about people who have suffered from the virus in order to empathize, “so it becomes personal to you," advised Parrish.
Special messages for parents
The prolonged pandemic period has meant families spending an unprecedented amount of time together inside their homes. On top of lockdowns, parents also have to teach their children how to practice pandemic-levels of hygiene and how to maintain social distancing.
In the short term, with the help of their survival instincts, most people, including children, can adapt to acutely stressful situations such as these. “However, when dire circumstances drag on, they have to adopt a different style of coping, and fatigue and demotivation may emerge," the WHO report said.
This has especially affected children because childhood is not meant to be spent locked in a house in front of a screen, according to Parrish. “They’ve given up so much already: their springtime, their summer, sports, birthday and graduation parties, vacations and now, the anticipation and fun of spending winter holidays with friends and family. They are tired."
Today, a unique and crucial role falls on parents. They need to encourage, incentivize and uphold the new norms. Parrish explained that they need to support their children and help them understand that abdicating their daily joys and comforts, like everyone else, means a happier tomorrow and a better chance of their loved ones staying healthy.
Adding fun and variety to the measures they need to take and restrictions they need to abide by is a meaningful step toward motivating them, she suggested. She said she lets her own children customize their masks. “As more of a variety in patterns became available, I let them pick colors and fabrics they liked.”
In addition, children can pick their favorite scent for hand sanitizers, and parents should also allow them to choose fun and enjoyable video games they can play virtually with their friends, reducing the impact of separation from them, Parrish said.
Consistency and involvement are key factors to keep children motivated and not disheartened. Parents must set an example by sticking to precautions, and children need to be allowed to remind their parents when they forget to wear a mask or skip on washing their hands, she stated. Giving her family as an example, Parrish said that she lets her children have a voice in ensuring that the family maintains recommended precautions. “Giving them that level of involvement helps keep them engaged in safer practices” she emphasized.
Parents should also be conscious of their children’s perception, comprehension and general mental health, which might easily be affected under these unique circumstances. They should be given space to express their feelings and frustrations, and their complaints should be examined with empathy. Parents need to validate their children’s emotions and then aid and guide them to a better mindset, Parrish pointed out.
Adapting to life during COVID-19
The most important thing is not to give up. The coronavirus pandemic isn’t going away anytime soon. Preventive practices are needed until there’s a treatment or vaccine, which could be months away.
Adapting to life with the coronavirus is possible, Parrish said. “Years ago, no one was concerned about secondhand smoke. We didn’t have car seats for children and didn’t put babies on their backs to sleep," she pointed out. “Accepting this new reality and staying committed to good habits can prevent COVID-19.”
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