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

In a recent study published in the Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences, researchers 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
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 have cautioned that "fatigue" may demotivate adherence to health-related rules and mandates. Nonetheless, exhaustion from adhering to the authorities’ policies might have implications that extend far beyond the realm of health. According to social science theories, real and perceived consequences of programs can also contribute to dissatisfaction with the political establishment.

About the study

In the present study, researchers assessed how pandemic fatigue, the perceived failure to adhere to constraints, developed over the pandemic and if it contributed to political unrest.

From 13 September 2020 to 20 July 2021, the team conducted quota-sampled surveys across eight countries, including Denmark, France, Hungary, Germany, Italy, the United States of America, the United Kingdom, and Sweden. The intensity, along with the national responses recorded towards the COVID-19 epidemic, the magnitude of political polarization, and the robustness of democratic institutions were the factors represented by the countries selected.  Once or twice a month, approximately 500 respondents per country were polled to obtain data. During this period, 13 rounds of data were collected from Denmark, with 12 rounds in the rest of the nations.

In these eight countries, a survey company named Epinion conducted an online panel survey of adult respondents. Participants in the survey were quota-selected to represent the population margins for age, sex, and geographic region. Pandemic fatigue was measured based on respondents' agreement with the statement: "I do not believe I can continue to comply with coronavirus limitations for much longer." Respondents offered their opinions on a five-point scale ranging between "entirely disagree" and "absolutely agree."

The study considered three potentially significant country-level predictors to evaluate the onset of pandemic fatigue. First, the Oxford COVID-19 Government Response Tracker (OxCGRT) was used to measure the strictness 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 registered number of daily mortalities per capita was used to determine the severity of the pandemic in the given nation. Third, the team provided a straightforward measurement of time since the outbreak's onset.

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

Results

In most nations, policy rigor and pandemic fatigue exhibited parallel trends, as seen by the overall pattern. Thus, the team detected a rise in policy stringency across all nations in the initial half of the study period through January 2021, which corresponds with the rise in pandemic fatigue. Similarly, overall stringency levels were consistently high throughout the first few months of 2021 before declining in April 2021. In Germany and Italy, this resulted in a reduction in pandemic fatigue throughout the same period.

The relationship between pandemic fatigue and pandemic severity displayed a negative correlation. In each of the eight countries, fatigue tended to rise when the daily mortality rate decreased. Pandemic fatigue rose over time as strictness increased and the pandemic's severity diminished. Nonetheless, the results also indicated that these macro-level predictors exhibited significant intercorrelation.

Across the study period, pandemic fatigue grew by approximately 5.8%-point every six months across all eight nations. The team noted that pandemic fatigue rose by approximately 3.3 points when policies were more stringent. When the intensity of the pandemic worsened, citizens appeared to have less pandemic fatigue. Specifically, when COVID-19 mortality increased by two standard deviations (SD), there was a drop in pandemic fatigue by approximately 2.2% points on average. This showed that people felt less fatigue from adhering to a continuous set of limits as the severity of the epidemic increased.

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

Overall, the study findings showed that pandemic fatigue grew as strictness intensified, as death rates decreased, and as time passed. Additional evaluations revealed that a longer period of demanding interventions had a cumulative effect on the public and was particularly exhausting.

Journal reference:
Bhavana Kunkalikar

Written by

Bhavana Kunkalikar

Bhavana Kunkalikar is a medical writer based in Goa, India. Her academic background is in Pharmaceutical sciences and she holds a Bachelor's degree in Pharmacy. Her educational background allowed her to foster an interest in anatomical and physiological sciences. Her college project work based on ‘The manifestations and causes of sickle cell anemia’ formed the stepping stone to a life-long fascination with human pathophysiology.

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