Cross Country Checkup

Why pandemic fatigue makes it harder to follow restrictions right now

After more than a year of lockdowns and shifting restrictions across the country, experts say pandemic fatigue is setting in — and that could affect our willingness to stick to the rules.

As lockdowns drag on, it’s more likely we’ll 'see more non-adherence,' says expert

Lockdowns and pandemic-related restrictions have a negative effect on mental health, and experts say the longer they continue, the more likely people are to ignore them. (Nathan Denette/The Canadian Press)

After more than a year of lockdowns and shifting restrictions across the country, experts say pandemic fatigue is setting in — and that could affect our willingness to stick to the rules.

"Lockdown restrictions are not good for people's mental health," said Dr. Steven Taylor, a psychiatry professor at the University of British Columbia and author of The Psychology of Pandemics.

"What's been happening in many people is they're experiencing a kind of burnout from being under lockdown for so long, for so many months." 

Several provinces have tightened restrictions in recent weeks because of a third wave fuelled by more dangerous variants of concern.

Both British Columbia and Ontario implemented lockdown or stay-at-home orders, respectively, while Quebec and Alberta have tightened restrictions once again. 

Officials in Manitoba and Saskatchewan have recently said that stronger restrictions may be enforced if case numbers grow.

Both indoor and outdoor dining has been limited or restricted entirely in many provinces. (Darryl Dyck/The Canadian Press)

While experts believe that most Canadians will bounce back from the effects of pandemic restrictions on mental health, the way we respond in the short term can change as they continue.

"When lockdown lifts, people's moods typically lift as well," said Taylor. 

"But as we see these lockdowns drawn out longer and longer, we can expect to see more non-adherence and more protest rallies."

Public health officials should avoid blame

As social creatures, the inability to connect with people in person is part of what's driving the fatigue, but Taylor says messaging from public health officials also plays a role.

"Health authorities need to get creative about the messaging to motivate people along without blaming people," he said.

Last month, B.C. Premier John Horgan told young people in the province, "Don't blow this for the rest of us."

WATCH | John Horgan addresses British Columbians aged 20-39

'Do not blow this for the rest of us,' John Horgan says to 20-39 age cohort

1 year ago
Duration 0:44
B.C. premier had stern words for people in their 20s and 30s who, he says, are not paying attention to COVID-19 public health orders.

Taylor argues such approaches can easily backfire. "If you tell someone who is currently experiencing low mood and irritability that they should do better, the consequences are obvious. People are going to get a little bit irritated," he said.

Instead, officials should reinforce what people are doing correctly, like sticking to masking rules.

But the blame game isn't the only thing driving frustration. Government inconsistency on lockdowns also has an impact.

People who are more optimistic, empathetic and trusting may experience pandemic fatigue less. Conversely, those who focus on negatives or distrust officials and experts — perhaps as a result of constantly shifting guidance — may feel it more, says Igor Grossmann, an associate professor of psychology at the University of Waterloo and creator of the project World After COVID.

That distrust and overwhelming feeling of fatigue can result in behaviour that seems justified, but might prove risky — like ignoring lockdown restrictions to visit a friend outside of your household after months of adhering to the guidelines.

This kind of behaviour is more likely to happen, Grossmann said, "if there are no clear guidelines, when things that come from the officials are not transparent and when they are inconsistent."

"That's exactly what we have experienced here in Ontario, but also in other provinces where there is a bit of a flip flopping in terms of the guidelines."

Humans more resilient than they think

Dr. Barry Pakes says that while Canadians' pandemic fatigue is very real, recent restrictions and lockdowns related to the third wave of COVID-19 are critical to protect not only health-care systems, but the physical and mental health of Canadians.

Two women take a self portrait as they wait in line at a COVID-19 vaccination clinic in Montreal. Dr. Barry Pakes says that with vaccines going into arms, third wave lockdowns could be the last. (Paul Chiasson/The Canadian Press)

But Pakes, program director of Public Health and Preventive Medicine at the University of Toronto and a public health physician, adds that it's "reasonable" to believe that with vaccines rolling out there's an end in sight to constant lockdowns, at least in Ontario.

"I'm pretty certain that it will be the last one, at least with this version of COVID that we've got. Even with the variants, we are quite certain," he said.

For those currently feeling run down by the pandemic, Taylor suggests reflecting on how far many of us have come during the pandemic.

Humans are more resilient than they realize, he says. With more than a year under our belt, we've adapted to much of what the pandemic has thrown our way.

"If I said to you in the middle of 2019 or next year, you're going to be involuntarily in lockdown and you're going to be wearing a mask … you would have said, 'No way,'" said Taylor.

"But here we are."

Written by Jason Vermes with files from Menna Elnaka and Steven Howard.

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