By Jennifer Bergman
A month ago, European countries started implementing new restrictions aimed at tackling a recent surge in cases. This sparked a wave of protests across several big European cities, populations that just last year tolerated restrictions such as curfews and lockdowns are now outraged at the prospect of another round. In Brussels, tens of thousands of people marched in protest and in the Netherlands, protests turned into riots with clashes between police and civilians (BBC, 2021). In Germany, the protests have become intertwined with the far right, further politicising the pandemic (DW, 2021). What has changed in these eighteen months that can help shed light on these recent events? By understanding the concept of pandemic fatigue in relation to European governments’ strategies to limit the spread, we can better understand the underlying grievances of the recent protests.
The World Health Organisation (WHO) define pandemic fatigue as the “demotivation to follow recommended protective behaviours, emerging gradually over time and affected by a number of emotions, experiences and perceptions” (WHO, 2020: 7). They note that this is an expected and natural response when a health crisis spans a long period of time, especially one that has widespread secondary effects on those not directly infected. Already last year, they warned that pandemic fatigue could pose a serious threat to efforts to control the spread and should be a priority of governments. However, mitigating the effects of pandemic fatigue is a hard as it is a constant weighing up of protecting lives or maintaining civil liberties. The strategies taken by most European governments since the outbreak started has focused on the first, putting restrictions into place to prevent the spread of the virus and loss of lives.
When the pandemic first started in spring 2020, all European governments implemented restrictions to varying degrees. From full lockdown in countries such as Italy and the UK, to recommendations on social distancing and limiting the number of people at gatherings in Sweden. The example of Sweden is an outlier to many other European governments’ strategies. Sweden’s approach, which limited the amount of restrictions they imposed, was met with a mixed response. Chief Epidemiologist Anders Tegnell noted this spring that mitigating pandemic fatigue was a factor taken into account in Sweden’s strategy (Ahlander and Fulton, 2021). Although it allowed its population to continue living almost as normal, the country has experienced a higher pandemic death rate than its Nordic neighbours – exemplifying the balance that comes between mitigating pandemic fatigue and case/death toll.
Those countries that did implement restrictions and lockdowns last year, as mentioned, did not face the same wave of protests that they currently are. As defined by WHO, pandemic fatigue increases over time, which in part explains the larger resistance in 2021, compared to 2020. However, the fact that governments are employing the same strategies against the backdrop of widespread critique over their failure to manage the pandemic could also contribute to fuelling this resistance. Despite repeated lockdowns, curfews and other restrictions, Europe continues to experience waves of outbreak surges. In April this year, Europe had more infections than any other region and highest death rate, despite having some of the world’s most developed health systems. In addition to general critique towards European governments, critique has also been levelled for a slow vaccine rollout and failure to foster trust between governments and citizens (Carnegie, 2021). According to the WHO’s definition, pandemic fatigue interact with emotions and perceptions, in this case it is the emotions of distrust and perceptions of failure, that could further exacerbate pandemic fatigue.
Could other strategies, besides that of Sweden, have prevented the widespread pandemic fatigue European citizens are experiencing? Countries such as South Korea and Taiwan have opted out of full-scale lock-downs and instead choosing digital and targeted protection in which you only lock down those individuals and clusters who test positive. While these countries have fared better financially throughout the pandemic and has allowed more people to continue living their lives, it also requires that the population has access to the right technology and is questionable in terms of public surveillance. Two contributing reasons as to why it was not a strategy that western democracies pursued (Bolondini, 2021). Placing different regimes in comparison with each other, recent research has found that democratic regimes are those best equipped at handling pandemics, using the number of pandemic epidemic deaths as an outcome (McMann and Tisch, 2021). However, this depends on what you measure success as; if it is minimising pandemic fatigue this is not the case and other strategies seem to have handled this better. Although this was not the priority of European governments’ initial response, since managing pandemic fatigue is a vital component of ensuring citizen compliance to restrictions, it is one governments cannot continue to overlook.
At the end of the day, no single government knew the perfect response to a disease outbreak of this magnitude and the strategies put in place have been those of trial and error. Although recent data show that democratic governments were those best equipped at handling pandemics, most strategies, with exceptions like Sweden, have failed to factor in the risk of pandemic fatigue. While the strategies adopted played an important role in reducing excess deaths due to Covid it has likely also exacerbated pandemic fatigue, which already increases the longer a disease outbreak go on. The protests that have erupted over European cities over these past weeks is a symptom of this. Ultimately, placing a focus on managing this fatigue is crucial in ensuring a sustainable long-term pandemic response supported by citizen compliance.
Ahlander, Johan & Fulton, Colm (2021) “Pandemic fatigue tests Sweden’s soft-touch COVID strategy”, Reuters, 10 March, accessed at https://www.reuters.com/article/health-coronavirus-sweden-restrictions-idUSL8N2L84K5
BBC (2021) “Covid: Huge protests across Europe over new restrictions”, BBC, 22 November, accessed at https://www.bbc.com/news/world-europe-59363256s
Bolondini, Massimiliano (2021) “Why the West failed to contain Covid-19”, New Statesman, 9 Sep, accessed at https://www.newstatesman.com/uncategorized/2020/12/why-west-failed-contain-covid-19
DW (2021). “COVID protests escalate in Germany”, DW, no date, accessed at https://www.dw.com/en/covid-protests-escalate-in-germany/a-60118647
Lehne, Stefan (2021) “Why can’t Europe cope with the Coronavirus?” Carnegie Europe, 8 April, accessed at https://carnegieeurope.eu/strategiceurope/84286
McMann, Kelly M & Tisch, Daniel (2021) “Democratic regimes and epidemic deaths”, V-Dem Institute, (Working Paper 126).
WHO (2020) “Pandemic fatigue – reinvigorating the public to prevent COVID-19. Policy framework for supporting pandemic prevention and management”, accessed at https://apps.who.int/iris/bitstream/handle/10665/335820/WHO-EURO-2020-1160-40906-55390-eng.pdf
(Image credit to Stéphanie Lecocq via The Guardian)