Non-profit JKS Volunteers took initiative by providing the community of Jaffna, Sri Lanka with dry food packages and distributing 1,000 sanitary pads to women in need during the COVID-19 pandemic. Image from Flickr by SDG Action Campaign. CC BY-ND 2.0.
This post by Shashika Bandara originally appeared in Groundviews, an award-winning citizen media website in Sri Lanka. An edited version is published below as part of a content-sharing agreement with Global Voices.
Sri Lanka is seeing an uptick in COVID-19 infections with 1,307 total infections with 1,180 new cases confirmed within seven days, as of October 10. Amid this increase, an unhealthy narrative is starting to take hold—one centred on blaming others, imposing fear and frustration. The common refrain that goes, “Why could they not have been careful enough?” is harmful and often leads to stigmatizing vulnerable communities that are affected by the virus.
Understanding why we (and others) are struggling with maintaining safety measures is important for us to improve our safety habits and to shift from a culture of blaming to a culture that supports and leads with kindness.
What is pandemic fatigue?
I am sure that you have, by now, experienced growing tiredness related to safety measures, the anxiety that comes with missing a simple step, and frustration towards those who do not follow safety guidelines. This feeling of tiredness has probably seeped into your daily life and is constantly present. This is called “pandemic fatigue,” and it is common to all of us regardless of nationality, ethnicity, profession or religion. The only effective way to counter pandemic fatigue is to lead with practical measures of kindness, both towards others and ourselves. Practical measures of kindness should be employed at every level, including personal, organizational and at the national policy level.
How do we counter pandemic fatigue?
Be kind, not silent
At a personal level, support others who are struggling, by explaining that pandemic fatigue is a phenomenon that affects us all, but also reinforce the importance of continuing to be safe, and direct others towards helpful resources. Another important personal step is to minimize shaming, condescending, and acting with aggression towards those who miss safety steps in personal encounters and on social media. This does not mean remaining silent. It means offering kind reminders to follow health guidelines. The popular narrative that people respond to shaming or aggression is false and is not a sustainable method. If you are a leader of an organization, sending gentle reminders on pandemic fatigue and the importance of being kind while remaining vigilant will go a long way towards maintaining the morale and safety of those who work under you.
Use awareness, not fear
It is also crucial that the government understands that pandemic fatigue affects its population. Such an understanding is important if we are to stop treating those who are infected with aggression or in a manner that causes fear and stigma. One of the negative points of Sri Lanka’s handling of the COVID-19 pandemic is the lack of effort by the government to counter stigma. Recent examples can be seen in the way that factory workers were treated after testing positive for COVID-19, and the continuing false narratives targeting Muslims. Sri Lanka should strongly consider relying less on using fear of punishment to enforce COVID-19 containment policies and providing more science-based explanations that integrate the public in the effort.
New Zealand’s success largely depended on making the public part of the effort as well as effective explanations by the government. Sri Lanka needs to put more effort into explaining and re-explaining the science behind policies. The topics could focus on asymptomatic, or the pre-symptomatic spread of COVID-19, long-term impacts of contracting COVID-19 beyond recovery, the impact on the health system, how stigma or spreading rumors can lead to more infection spread and the importance of community support during this difficult time. As an initial idea to communicate science to the public, Sri Lanka can look to the World Health Organization’s COVID-19 Science in 5 series, an ongoing video and audio series that explains in five-minute episodes each key concept related to COVID-19.
Equality in communication and in enforcement
Confusion about COVID-19 policies and experiencing the selective application of containment policies can contribute further to pandemic fatigue, and the government, therefore, also has a responsibility to be clear, to communicate in all three languages (Sinhala, Tamil and English), and to apply containment policies without favouritism. These and other factors, inaccessibility of government guidelines or confusion about guidelines, and not countering stigma are missteps other countries have made that we can learn from. For example, confusion around health guidelines, and selective enforcement of the guidelines have resulted in a crisis in the United States.
Source: Pandemic leadership: Lessons from New Zealand’s approach to COVID-19 by Suze Wilson
Combat poor journalism
Poor journalistic practices are as dangerous as the pandemic itself and are a major contributor to pandemic fatigue. Poor journalism ethics, both at the corporate and individual levels, that violate privacy, spread misinformation and stigma, provide an incomplete picture of the current status, and which favour political interests are extremely dangerous and intentionally put lives at risk. It is crucial that individual journalists and companies take the responsibility to follow ethical guidelines on reporting such as respecting privacy, not sensationalizing the news, providing accurate information, and using relevant headlines, as opposed to generating clickbait. International Media Support offers useful reporting guidelines as a start to improve or re-align harmful journalistic practices.
We are all tired and wish this to be over. Pandemic fatigue has taken hold of us at a personal level, and at the policy level governments across the globe struggle to maintain the safety and economy of their countries. While the new normal is not easy, understanding that pandemic fatigue affects us all, and countering it with kindness and methods grounded in science will be the most effective way to succeed.
The author is a former Policy Associate at the Center for Policy Impact at the Duke Global Health Institute and is currently a PhD candidate focusing on global health policy at McGill University.