Study: Pandemic fatigue fueled political discontent during the COVID-19 pandemic. Image Credit: Letters-Shmetters/Shutterstock

What has been the impact of the COVID-19 pandemic on the political unrest exacerbated by pandemic fatigue?

In a recent study published in the Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciencesresearchers explored the impact of the coronavirus disease 2019 (COVID-19) pandemic on political unrest exacerbated by pandemic fatigue.

Study: Pandemic fatigue fueled political discontent during the COVID-19 pandemic. Image Credit: Letters-Shmetters/Shutterstock

Health officials have identified “pandemic fatigue” as a psychological effect of the severe acute respiratory syndrome coronavirus 2 (SARS-CoV-2) pandemic. They warned that “fatigue” can discourage compliance with health-related rules and mandates. Nevertheless, the exhaustion due to the adhesion to the policies of the authorities could have implications which go well beyond the field of health. According to social science theories, the real and perceived consequences of programs can also contribute to discontent with the political establishment.

About the study

In the current study, researchers assessed how pandemic fatigue, the perceived inability to adhere to constraints, developed during the pandemic and whether it contributed to political unrest.

From September 13, 2020 to July 20, 2021, the team conducted quota sampling surveys in eight countries, including Denmark, France, Hungary, Germany, Italy, United States of America, the UK and Sweden. The intensity, as well as the recorded national responses to the COVID-19 outbreak, the extent of political polarization and the strength of democratic institutions were the factors represented by the selected countries. Once or twice a month, approximately 500 respondents per country were polled for data. During this period, 13 rounds of data were collected in Denmark, with 12 rounds in the rest of the countries.

In these eight countries, a polling company named Epinion conducted an online panel survey of adult respondents. Survey participants were selected by quota to represent population margins for age, gender, and geographic region. Pandemic fatigue was measured based on respondents’ agreement with the statement, “I don’t believe I can continue to adhere to coronavirus limitations any longer.” Respondents expressed their opinion on a five-point scale ranging from “strongly disagree” to “strongly agree”.

The study looked at three potentially important country-level predictors for assessing the onset of pandemic fatigue. First, the Oxford COVID-19 Government Response Tracker (OxCGRT) was used to measure the stringency of national COVID-19 policies. The index tracked the implementation of public and societal actions against the pandemic in a particular country at a given time. Second, the recorded number of daily deaths per capita was used to determine the severity of the pandemic in the given nation. Third, the team provided a direct measure of the time elapsed since the start of the outbreak.

To determine whether pandemic fatigue contributes to political discontent, the correlation between pandemic fatigue and six indices of individual-level discontent was assessed: 1) opposition to COVID-19 limitations, 2) protests against restrictions, 3) trust in COVID-19 conspiracies, 4) concern for democratic rights, 5) distrust of government, and 6) support for leadership.

Results

In most countries, political stringency and pandemic fatigue showed parallel trends, as the overall trend shows. Thus, the team detected an increase in policy stringency in all countries during the first half of the study period to January 2021, which is consistent with the increase in pandemic fatigue. Similarly, overall stringency levels were consistently high throughout the early months of 2021 before falling in April 2021. In Germany and Italy, this resulted in reduced pandemic fatigue throughout the same period.

The relationship between pandemic fatigue and pandemic severity showed a negative correlation. In each of the eight countries, fatigue tended to increase when the daily death rate decreased. Pandemic fatigue increased over time as the stringency increased and the severity of the pandemic decreased. Nevertheless, the results also indicated that these macro-level predictors exhibited significant intercorrelation.

During the study period, pandemic fatigue increased by approximately 5.8% every six months in all eight countries. The team noted that pandemic fatigue increased by about 3.3 points when policies were stricter. When the intensity of the pandemic worsened, citizens seemed to have less pandemic fatigue. Specifically, when COVID-19 mortality increased by two standard deviations (SD), there was a decline in pandemic fatigue of approximately 2.2% on average. It showed that people felt less fatigued with adhering to an ongoing set of boundaries as the severity of the outbreak increased.

The team found a correlation between pandemic fatigue and political dissatisfaction. In particular, when respondents who reported high levels of fatigue were compared to those with low levels of fatigue, the baseline models indicated a 39.5 percentage point increase in opposition to pandemic restrictions, an increase 27.6 points of support for protests against these restrictions, a 29.1 point increase 14.2% increase in confidence in conspiracies related to COVID-19, a 36.2% increase in rights concerns democracy and a 14.2% increase in distrust of government. Similarly, fatigued individuals have a 3.7% decrease in their support for strong leaders.

Overall, the study results showed that pandemic fatigue increased as the stringency intensified, death rates decreased, and time passed. Further evaluations revealed that a longer period of demanding interventions had a cumulative effect on the audience and was particularly exhausting.

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