The Dark Winter

The Danger of Coronavirus Fatigue

Photo by Anton Darius on Unsplash

As we look around, we see a real phenomenon emerging: I call it COVID fatigue. Everyone is tired. We are all overwhelmed. While we have experienced it differently, we are all suffering from trauma. Everyone wants to go back to “normal”. It can be easy to do that for an evening or even a few days. You get together, you have fun and laugh, and you go about your merry way. What COVID? We are all fine!

Until you aren’t.

The reality is pretty grim. We had a major wave of coronavirus infections in March and April, but it was mostly centered on the coasts of the U.S. In late May, states started opening up again, and a second wave hit the south and southwest regions of the country. As they implemented some rules and mask mandates, we saw the shift to the Midwest. But now? We are in a third wave, and it’s bad. Very bad. The entire country is in the “bruised red” territory meaning that 48 out of 50 states have “uncontrolled community spread”. Testing and contact tracing are simply not possible when that happens. In most areas of the country, we are worse off in November than we were in March, and, yet, COVID fatigue is at the center of everything.

You drive by a restaurant with a packed parking lot. You see indoor birthday parties with not a mask to be seen. Weddings and baby showers are ticking up again. Intimate gatherings are the single biggest driver of COVID cases right now; we don’t want to believe that, but the evidence is pretty clear. And we haven’t even hit Thanksgiving yet. 38% of Americans say they aren’t changing anything about their Thanksgiving plans. The gatherings won’t be any smaller than in years past; they will not require mask wearing. Science is a funny thing; it doesn’t really care about feelings. So, COVID will spread more in the weeks following Thanksgiving, and it will likely do the same following the Christmas holiday break. COVID fatigue is a real and present danger.

Funny thing about humans: we are a social lot. I always tell my students that humans don’t do well in isolation, and they have interesting responses. “I would!”. “I hate people, so I’d be fine”. “I’d pay to be alone sometimes”. And I tell them the same thing every time: you would like to be alone for a little while. And then you wouldn’t. Even if we “hate people”, there are those that we love. We need each other; it’s a huge part of being human. We get our social cues from our interactions. Without those, we begin to struggle. We get lonely and depressed; mental health is a huge part of this story. This is why COVID fatigue happens; we don’t want to be apart from one another, and so we begin to justify behaviors to ourselves so that we can join together.

The results speak for themselves: over 150,000 average daily cases in the last few weeks. Hospitalizations are at an all-time high. Deaths are starting to tick up again. We are losing more than 1,000 people each day. Why don’t people change their behavior?

The answer is complicated, but sociologists have long explained it this way: humans are hard-wired to dismiss anything that doesn’t fit with their world view. We have long observed this behavior with things like climate change, vaccines, and even the shape of the earth. These issues are settled with science, and, yet, a large subset of the population does not see it that way. When presented with more and more evidence, they simply dig their heels in and figuratively stick their fingers in their ears.

As I said, we are a social group; we like to be included, and our sense of self is related to how much we feel connected. We often find evidence that agrees with what we believe, and we reject evidence that doesn’t. That confirmation bias is a huge issue for our sense of self, but it’s an even larger issue when the topic relates to our health and well-being.

We have watched over these long months as people have made choices that seem to fly in the face of public health guidelines. There’s a bit of Russian Roulette that is played on a regular basis. If someone “gets away” with bad behavior, it’s more confirmation bias that the behavior is not as risky as they previously thought. So, over the months, as people have had more and more encounters that didn’t result in the virus, they feel “safe”.

That could fly for a bit when the spread was more controlled. But as more and more states admit that they cannot properly contact trace because of the out of control numbers, the exponential growth is starting to take hold.

Public health officials are practically begging Americans to scale back their celebrations. Doctors and nurses keep showing us the grim picture of running out of beds and staff; many of them are shouting as loud as they can about mobile morgues and COVID “pits” in their hospitals where no one comes out alive. These stories should scare the hell out of us, but, instead, there is a willful ignorance that happens. If I don’t look that way, I won’t see it.

So, our healthcare workers are preparing for the worst; Thanksgiving will likely be a series of COVID spreading gatherings that will put more strain on the system. How long before it breaks? And will that change anything?

The answer is likely no. As social creatures, we will make excuses and find ways to circumvent the rules. We will tell ourselves that we are taking the right precautions. We will ignore the cognitive dissonance. We will justify our actions and point to others as the problem.

If the experts are right, the consequences will be catastrophic. But, as a nation that has yet to recognize its collective grief or trauma, we’ll lurch along until the next gathering and just hope for the best.

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