‘People have had enough’: Across the world, coronavirus fatigue hits hard just as pandemic spikes again

Borzou Daragahi,Bel Trew,Adam Withnall and Oliver Carroll
·9-min read
A cook stands next to a “For sale” sign during a protest in support of restaurants and bars and to demand changes in the strict time regulations amid the coronavirus pandemic in Ourense, northwestern Spain, on October 14, 2020.  (Photo by MIGUEL RIOPA/AFP via Getty Images) (AFP via Getty Images)
A cook stands next to a “For sale” sign during a protest in support of restaurants and bars and to demand changes in the strict time regulations amid the coronavirus pandemic in Ourense, northwestern Spain, on October 14, 2020. (Photo by MIGUEL RIOPA/AFP via Getty Images) (AFP via Getty Images)

At first, Sarah Russell, her friends and everyone around her adhered strictly to coronavirus lockdown rules imposed by authorities in Melbourne, in the Australian state of Victoria, which has been the worst hit by the pandemic in the country.

But as the 17-year-old retail employee and soon-to-be high school graduate watched her earnings crumble and life ambitions fade away because of Covid-19, she and others started to become apathetic.

“In the beginning, I was more inclined to abide by lockdown restrictions because the significant rise in cases was quite concerning,” she says. “But as time progressed, the cases have dropped so much. So it’s getting pretty tiresome at this point, and I feel like a lot of Melburnians are starting to care less.”

Across the world, just as another and potentially more dangerous surge of coronavirus strikes, fatigue over measures to control the pandemic has begun to take hold, even though infection rates have reached unprecedented levels in some countries.

Experts are warning that those who at first adhered to rules on limiting social gatherings, wearing masks and maintaining social distance are beginning to become more and more blase. Videos showed crowds of revelers in the streets of Liverpool celebrating Tuesday night as an order to close down pubs came into effect.

People have had enough,” says John Paget, a researcher at the Netherlands Institute for Health Services Research. “Coronavirus measures have been left to mostly up to individuals to decide, and it’s no longer working. Things are not going in the right direction.”

Those who are still taking the wearing of masks and hygiene habits seriously are being mocked in some quarters.

“These days I think people only realise the gravity of coronavirus once it hits them personally,” says Delhi resident Manpreet Singh, whose 68-year-old father-in-law fell sick with coronavirus but was turned away from six hospitals and died.

“Even though we have lost a family member, among our extended family the majority have stopped wearing masks altogether,” he says. “I have started being seen as a person who is very scared. They say, ‘Oh, you must be so afraid,’ and they make fun of me.”

Underground party scenes have sprung up across major cities, with merrymakers young and old in Istanbul, Paris, and elsewhere risking fines for defying social gathering rules by holding crowded indoor celebrations in private spaces.

“It’s happening every weekend or even during weekdays,” says Jose L. Vastag, a fashion and portrait photographer living near Buenos Aires. “Clandestine parties, birthday parties or 20 or 30 people gathered for a barbecue.”

People are taking their masks off in public, and police -- likely also growing tired of the lockdown’s impact -- are looking the other way.

France on Wednesday announced a 9 p.m. curfew for bars and restaurants in Paris and eight other cities beginning Saturday.

But in much of the world, normal life continues regardless of the pandemic’s resurgent threat.

In central Moscow, patrons drank in a crowded bar, even though infections nationwide were hovering around 14,000 over the last 24 hours and 90 per cent of Covid-19 hospital beds are now occupied. The bar owner insisted a ban on bars would never happen, because of lost revenue in fines to officials and bribes to cops.

The police, too, yearned to return to the “old normal,” he says.

Polling suggests more awareness of the virus’s impact and danger does not necessarily result in greater enthusiasm for prevention measures. A series of surveys of Americans conducted by Gallup showed softening support for coronavirus restrictions even as consistent majorities saw the state of the pandemic as getting worse or staying the same.

Global health officials are sounding the alarm, worried about a loosening of measures and adherence to guidelines because of what they describe as“pandemic fatigue”.

The World Health Organisation organised a 5 October international summit of European senior health directors and experts in behavioural science to come up with ways to get people to stick to social distancing measures and sanitary precautions.

In a 12 October briefing, WHO secretary-general Tedros Adhanom Ghebreyesuss acknowledged rising hostility to coronavirus restrictions but urged vigilance.

“We recognize that at certain points, some countries have had no choice but to issue stay-at-home orders and other measures, to buy time,” he told reporters in a virtual press conference from the organisation’s Geneva headquarters. “We well understand the frustration that many people, communities and governments are feeling as the pandemic drags on, and as cases rise again.”

Senior health officials are chastising their own people for laxly following guidelines or abandoning them altogether. "We are not powerless against this virus,” Germany’s Health Minister Jens Spahn chastised told Deutschlandfunk radio on Thursday. “We can do something, we all can make a difference every day."

United States infectious disease specialist Anthony Fauci has warned that Americans weren’t avoiding crowds, wearing masks or staying outdoors enough.

The fatigue is coming at a particularly grave time, with many countries that had weathered the initial wave of coronavirus in the spring now experiencing record numbers. Morocco, for example, on Tuesday recorded 49 Covid-19 deaths in 24 hours, and the United Arab Emirates reported its highest number of infections. Numbers are rising dramatically again throughout Europe, Asia, and the Upper Midwest of the US.

Public health officials and citizens cite exasperation with rules that hamper daily life, cloud future plans and eat away at financial security without halting the disease, as well as mixed messaging by politicians and lackadaisical enforcement by officials.

“Even our local MP is like, ‘We don’t know what the rules are’,” says Alex Nurse, a lecturer at the University of Liverpool.

Just a few weeks ago, Nurse’s wife delivered a child, and his paternity leave comes to end next week. But the new rules might mean that his mother-in-law cannot visit to come help with the baby, and they may not be able to hire a nanny.

“I’m about to go to work next week and legally no one is allowed into our house to help out,” he says. “The frustration is this real vagueness in the new rules. It’s not clear what the restrictions are. It hasn’t been really well-thought through, certainly not from a lay person’s position. Just as we were thinking that we were through with the dangerous bit, then came the restrictions.”

An image of Britains’s Prime Minister Boris Johnson, Britains Health Secretary Matt Hancock and Number 10 Special advisor Dominic Cummings, is pictured on a sign outside a pub re-branded as ‘The Three Bellends’, in protest against the government’s handling of the coronavirus pandemic , New Brighton, Wirral, Britain, 14 October 2020. New Local lockdown measures came into force in the Liverpool City Region on 14 October 2020.  EPA/PETER POWELLEPA
An image of Britains’s Prime Minister Boris Johnson, Britains Health Secretary Matt Hancock and Number 10 Special advisor Dominic Cummings, is pictured on a sign outside a pub re-branded as ‘The Three Bellends’, in protest against the government’s handling of the coronavirus pandemic , New Brighton, Wirral, Britain, 14 October 2020. New Local lockdown measures came into force in the Liverpool City Region on 14 October 2020. EPA/PETER POWELLEPA

Paget, the public health specialist, blames governments and public health officials for failing to take advantage of the time and space they had during the initial lockdowns to put in place measures that would prevent a need for further restrictions of social and economic life.

“The clinicians are doing their best,” he says. “But we’ve failed. Governments have failed. And public health has failed. The whole contact tracing and testing and communicating has also been a failure. It’s a complete failure. And politicians will not tell you that.”

Loose and sometimes arbitrary enforcement of rules has added to the doubts. Russell describes the efforts to get people to comply with rules in Victoria as “iffy”.

“In some areas there isn’t a lot of policing, but it’s a problem within Victoria of police targeting indigenous Australians and people of colour more so than white Australians,” she says.

Iran, the worst-hit country in the Middle East, announced new mobility restraints in five cities including the capital, Tehran, but videos showed gridlocked traffic on intercity roads.

Throughout the world many countries also have little choice but to abandon restrictions. In Afghanistan’s Herat province, where 156 positive cases were found among 386 students and teachers tested at schools this month, classes continue, with up to 60 pupils stuffed into classrooms.

"Our school building has no capacity,” Latifa Hamdard, a school principal, told the Tolo News channel. “If we reduce the numbers of students, then we do not have the space or personnel to teach the students."

In Lebanon, which is in the grip of another partial lockdown and curfew, the main coronavirus hospital was just “one or two patients away” from reaching total capacity. But despite record daily infection rates, residents say they have completely given up on reimposing restrictions.

“People are living day-by -day to try to survive,” says Sahar Minkara, a Tripoli-based activist. “Getting sick for a few weeks is nothing compared to trying to make ends meet, to finding food. It will be impossible for the authorities to impose a full lockdown in the future.”

As flu season begins, health officials fear winter restrictions will be completely ignored given austerity measures and financial crunches in many poorer countries.

India,with its economy still floundering after enforcing one of the world’s earliest and strictest nationwide lockdowns, is now pressing ahead with a staged “Unlock” programme.

This month, cinema halls and schools will be allowed to open, after the return of bars, metro services and reduced restrictions on inter-state tourism in September, even as its Covid-19 cases are rising faster than anywhere else on the planet. More than 55,000 new infections were added on Wednesday to make for a total tally of 7.24 million, second only to the US. More than 111,000 people have died of the pandemic.

Israel, which has re-imposed one of the world’s strictest second lockdowns as the number of known cases neared 300,000, is also contending with major pushback from both Ultra-orthodox religious communities who have repeatedly defied lockdown to attend funerals and gatherings and anti-government protesters concerned that the authorities are using anti-coronavirus measures to silence dissent.

“[People] see the lockdown as a failure in the way [the coronavirus] is being handled,” says one Israeli protester. “We all know the lockdowns are extreme compared to the rest of the world. Obviously it’s going to be a hell of winter.”

Economic pressures are exacerbating frustration over lockdown restrictions. Russell says that she’s been laid off from her job at a retail outlet near Melbourne and will likely have to put off plans to visit Europe next year after graduation.

“At this point it’s really starting to take a toll on my mental health,” she says. “My future isn’t clear due to all of the restrictions in place.”

Vastag, the photographer in Buenos Aires, says he’s had one assignment since the lockdown in March. “My work is zero,” he says. “But the main problem is the elders. My mother is 72 and my father is 75. I’m so worried about them because they are like in a prison staying at home far from their sons and grandsons.”

Nurse and his wife have given up for now on travelling abroad, hitting the pub with their mates or dining out, even as they support local restaurants by ordering delivery. But Nurse’s mother lives just outside Liverpool, and she hasn’t been able to spend time with her new granddaughter.

“I really want nothing more,” he says, “than to go to my mum’s house with my daughter and have a cup of tea."

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