Public attitudes to the COVID-19 pandemic during the emergence of the Omicron variant

The coronavirus disease 2019 (COVID-19) pandemic, government restrictions, and the public response to those restrictions have been some of the most hotly contested policy decisions of the last few years. The legality and morality of lockdowns, vaccination passports, and mandatory face masks have all been debated, and the arguments over many of them continue fiercely.

Study: ‘Variant fatigue’? Public attitudes to COVID-19 18 months into the pandemic: A qualitative study. Image Credit: elenabsl/ShutterstockStudy: ‘Variant fatigue’? Public attitudes to COVID-19 18 months into the pandemic: A qualitative study. Image Credit: elenabsl/Shutterstock

New threats to compliance continue to emerge, and following over two years of strife and disease, many individuals feel tired of anything ‘covid related.’ Researchers from Swansea University have been investigating public attitudes to the pandemic.

A preprint version of the study is available on the PsyArXiv* preprint server while the article undergoes peer review.

The study

The researchers put together four focus groups and three interviews with a total of 21 participants between November and December 2021, with participants varying according to age, ethnicity, gender, and vaccination status. Each focus group was conducted on Zoom, and lasted approximately one hour.

First, the participants were asked about their response to and views on the new variant, Omicron. The researchers observed that their views tended to fall into two categories. The first category was named ‘variant fatigue,’ characterized by a more relaxed feeling than earlier stages, less knowledge about the Omicron variant, less likely to follow the news, and more unlikely to change their behavior.

The second category being ‘Déjà Vu. Individuals whose responses fell under the déjà vu category believed that Omicron posed an additional threat compared to other variants and likened their state and the state of the country to either the previous winter or the initial outbreak. They were more likely to modify their behavior. No demographic patterns could be seen from these responses, but unvaccinated individuals were more likely to fall into the ‘variant fatigue’ category.

Individuals whose responses fell under ‘vaccine fatigue’ tended to make comments such as “I’m fed up of new variants” or “I’m not paying attention at the moment.” They tended to report avoiding news broadcasts about the pandemic to preserve their mental health. Many felt over-exposed to negative broadcasts and felt that the news was sensationalized as the strain appeared milder.

As would be expected, the ‘Déjà Vu’ individuals tended to have a more negative outlook on the current situation. Some did agree with the general sentiment that we “just have to get on and live with it.” Still, generally, the attitude behind this was much darker, with statements like “I feel like I’m in perpetual motion on a guinea pig wheel” and “I feel totally inhibited… mentally”.

As mentioned earlier, ‘Déjà Vu’ individuals were more likely to modify their behavior to help prevent the transmission of the disease. This included avoiding social activities, taking additional tests, and continuing behavior that had become common in the pandemic, such as extra handwashing and sanitizing surfaces. Surprisingly, however, several individuals did admit to wearing facemasks less.

Across both groups, all demographics and both vaccinated and unvaccinated, almost every individual said that they would follow any future policy measures, up to and including lockdown. However, there was a constant theme of what the researchers termed ‘reluctant compliance,’ with many individuals admitting to complying only as it was legally required or stating that they would be unhappy but willing to comply. However, two individuals did say that they would refuse to comply with certain rules, both of whom wished to visit their families over Christmas time.

Conclusion

The authors highlight that the risk posed by variant fatigue to compliance is growing, partially due to a sense of complacency and partially due to increasing skepticism and a decline in engagement with news related to COVID-19. They suggest a public communications approach to the problem, highlighting that Omicron is not ‘just another variant,’ providing more targeted messaging and emphasizing the reasoning behind the decisions for any new restrictions.

The authors admit that this is a small sample, and larger, more generalizable studies are needed for further confirmations but point to their results as some immediate evidence that could help direct the questioning of future studies. The information in this paper could help inform those studies and help guide public health communications policy.

*Important notice

PsyArXiv publishes preliminary scientific reports that are not peer-reviewed and, therefore, should not be regarded as conclusive, guide clinical practice/health-related behavior, or treated as established information.

Journal reference:
Sam Hancock

Written by

Sam Hancock

Sam completed his MSci in Genetics at the University of Nottingham in 2019, fuelled initially by an interest in genetic ageing. As part of his degree, he also investigated the role of rnh genes in originless replication in archaea.

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