In recent weeks, many countries have been reporting an increase in “pandemic fatigue” – people are feeling demotivated about following recommended behaviours to protect themselves and others from the virus.
Finding effective ways to tackle this fatigue and reinvigorate public vigilance is therefore a growing challenge that governments and health authorities face as this prolonged public health crisis continues.
High-level public health experts from over 30 countries and partner organizations in the WHO European Region connected remotely on 5 October to strengthen understanding of pandemic fatigue and share experiences in how to address it.
At the request of Member States, WHO/Europe has also developed a framework of policy recommendations to guide governments in the planning and implementation of national and subnational strategies to bolster public support for COVID-19 prevention measures.
Understanding pandemic fatigue
Professor Cornelia Betsch, Heisenberg-Professor of Health Communication at Erfurt University, Germany, spoke of the psychology behind pandemic fatigue, explaining that fear is a motivator for protective behaviour, but it wears off as people adapt to the threat. Fatigue also occurs if we do the same things repeatedly for a long time, she added.
WHO defines pandemic fatigue as a natural and expected reaction to sustained and unresolved adversity in people’s lives. It expresses itself as demotivation to engage in protective behaviours and to seek out information, as well as in feelings of complacency, alienation and hopelessness. Pandemic fatigue evolves gradually over time and is affected by the cultural, social, structural and legislative environment.
Therefore monitoring public opinion, through tools such as the one developed by WHO/Europe and now used by 27 countries and areas in the Region, is an important starting point for effective behavioural change.
Sharing country experiences
Many country representatives took the floor at the meeting to share examples of action taken in their countries to ensure public engagement in COVID-19-related measures. Common themes included making sure that these initiatives were understandable and logical, the importance of supporting livelihoods and jobs, targeting measures to specific groups, and considering other barriers beyond knowledge that prevent people from following recommendations (such as lack of access to safe water, hand sanitizer, masks, spacious living conditions, and so on).
Several participants also highlighted how supporting mental health initiatives is essential as the pandemic continues.
Framework of policy considerations
Katrine Bach Habersaat, Team Lead (ad interim) of the Behavioural and Cultural Insights Unit at WHO/Europe, introduced the framework developed by WHO/Europe to address pandemic fatigue. It includes 4 key strategies:
- Understand people: collect and use evidence for targeted, tailored and effective policies, interventions and communication.
- Engage people as part of the solution: find ways to meaningfully involve individuals and communities at every level.
- Help people to reduce risk while doing the things that make them happy: wide-ranging restrictions may not be feasible for everyone in the long run.
- Acknowledge and address the hardship people experience, and the profound impact the pandemic has had on their lives.
It also sets down 5 cross-cutting principles for any initiative, policy or communication to follow: transparency, fairness, consistency, coordination and predictability.
In addition, the paper provides a quick list of concrete actions, and examples from countries of what they have done to understand and engage people, seek to reduce risk and acknowledge hardship.
There was broad agreement among participants that further discussion on the topic of pandemic fatigue is needed through a regular forum. WHO/Europe also proposed creating a repository for country experiences.
At the end of the meeting, the Norwegian concept of “dugnad” was invoked – support provided by individuals to help each other or a community – a form of group resilience to be nurtured in the months ahead.
Using behavioural and cultural science to advance health
Behavioural and cultural insights for health refers to knowledge derived from the social sciences and health humanities that helps us to better understand the drivers of and barriers to achieving the highest attainable standard of health.
The newly approved European Programme of Work 2020–2025 has a strong focus on harnessing behavioural and cultural insights, and a new unit was recently established at WHO/Europe to improve knowledge in this field.