January 22, 2021, by Brigitte Nerlich

Lockdown fatigue: A tale of two discourses

A while ago I wrote a brief post on ‘lockdown words’, amongst them ‘lockdown fatigue’. At the time I hadn’t noticed all the other quasi-synonyms, apart from ‘lockdown lethargy’. Over time more words crept past my horizon: behavioural fatigue, pandemic fatigue, isolation fatigue, quarantine fatigue and so on.

In the UK, we are now in the third lockdown and the idea of ‘fatigue’ has been with us since, at least, the 9th of March 2020, when England’s chief medical officer Chris Whitty talked about it for the first time in the context of fearing that ‘it’ might lead to reduced compliance. Initially, the idea was attributed to behavioural scientists (a word that had rather sinister undertones at the time), but it turned out that this was not the case. Be this as it may, the idea stuck and has been buffeted around by two opposing discourses. (For a thorough analysis of the concept of behavioural fatigue, see this article by Nigel Harvey from November 2020)

On the one hand, fatigue was blamed for people flouting rules and not doing the right thing. On the other hand, the government was blamed for not providing people with an environment and support that would enable them to do the right thing. The first discourse of blame is totally counter-productive; the second discourse of blame is rather more justified but has, as yet, not persuaded the government to stop blaming the people….

Fatigue in the news

Observing all this made me think a bit more about the concept of lockdown fatigue and I wanted to know how it evolved over time and what meanings it attracted in the public sphere. To study that one could look at Twitter, but I can’t do that. So, I reverted to my usual shortcut: the news data base Lexis Nexis.

I put in a few search terms and here are the results in order of number of hits (on 15 January):

pandemic fatigue (5094)
lockdown fatigue (1453)
quarantine fatigue (660)
(self-)isolation fatigue (122)
behavioural fatigue (84)

In terms of geographical spread, I don’t want to say anything too specific, because ‘more research needed’, but pandemic fatigue seems to be common in Canada and later in the year the US (together with quarantine fatigue) but also in Ireland, while lockdown fatigue is perhaps more a British thing, together with behavioural fatigue.

The first article I found was published on 11 March in the Australian Financial Review. It used the word ‘quarantine fatigue’ and referenced the British approach to the pandemic which it compared to early and severe lockdowns in Italy and Spain: “Britain has been the chief proponent of a more measured approach [than Italy or Spain]. The theory is that the authorities have only a small window – perhaps three to six weeks – during which people will actually stick faithfully to lockdown measures. After that, quarantine fatigue sets in, and the best laid plans could slowly fall apart. That means the government has to time its peak response to the crest of the coronavirus wave.” (AFR, 11 March) That was the theory anyway, but, in the end, this approach led to a delayed response and more deaths, more lockdowns and possibly more fatigue…

The next article in the timeline was published in The Guardian on 14 March and dealt with the controversy surrounding the concept of ‘behavioural fatigue’ – the concept that launched a thousand, at least four, ships. The article quotes a letter signed by 164 behavioural scientists raising concerns about that concept: “While we fully support an evidence-based approach to policy that draws on behavioural science, we are not convinced that enough is known about ‘behavioural fatigue’ or to what extent these insights apply to the current exceptional circumstances […] If ‘behavioural fatigue’ truly represents a key factor in the government’s decision to delay high-visibility interventions, we urge the government to share an adequate evidence base in support of that decision. If one is lacking, we urge the government to reconsider these decisions”. This never happened.

On 18 March the Newcastle Herald (Australia) mentions the concept of ‘isolation fatigue’ and on 25 March the National Post (Canada) talks about ‘lockdown fatigue’ with relation to what was happening at the time in Paris. Lockdown fatigue became the phrase du jour in the UK.

It was first used on 19 March in the Evening News (Norwich), four days before a lockdown was finally declared and the article says interestingly: “There has been talk about the danger of lockdown ‘fatigue‘ but the British people appear to be starting to impose this on themselves already”. Many people had indeed started to impose lockdown on themselves well before the government asked them to. What can one call that? Lockdown spirit?

Last but not least, on 19 April, the Sunday Independent (Ireland) urges politicians to listen to scientists and says: “A clear plan based on science will reassure the public, which is essential. And so, we now wait. Tolerate pandemic fatigue and lockdown lethargy. Wait to be released.” That is quite a rare point of view.

Fatigue as illness

I can’t go through thousands of articles for this blog post, but it seems that the concepts of lockdown and pandemic fatigue in particular were very quickly accepted as a given. They rapidly turned from something speculative to something real, even something one can diagnose and treat. Lockdown and pandemic fatigue became a physical and mental illness, alongside Covid-19, and with similarly devastating consequences. Here are just a few of the words with which lockdown and pandemic fatigue ‘collocate’ and frame it as an illness:

fatigue is real
fatigue is gripping the country
fatigue has hit hard
fatigue has set in, sets in
the onset of fatigue
clear signs of fatigue
experience of fatigue
has, have, having fatigue
succumbing to fatigue
suffering from fatigue
caught fatigue
having a bad case of fatigue

This framing turns pandemic fatigue into an illness, indeed a mental illness, sometimes even called a ‘syndrome’ or a ‘condition’, to which individuals succumb, who then, because they are thus infected, go out and do stupid things to escape its effects.

Such a framing opens up certain paths for action and obstructs others. In our case, this framing suggests that one should “battle”, “combat” and “beat” fatigue, as one does any other illness, and one should also punish (indeed, ‘crack down on’) those who break the rules because they can no longer endure the lockdown. This then feeds into the general war and crime discourse surrounding the pandemic, a discourse that highlights individual actions and indeed failings but hides structural issues.

Framing and blaming

There is no doubt that lockdowns and isolation have physical and mental effects that need to be taken seriously, but the almost exclusive framing of lockdown fatigue in terms of illness and battling illness shifts the blame from government to individuals and this in turn means we fail to see the real causes for the impacts of lockdown fatigue, such as structural inequalities, austerity, hostile environments and the dismal management of the pandemic itself.

In a recent article for the British Medical Journal Stephen Reicher and John Drury, two prominent behavioural scientists and critics of government policy, point out that “terms like ‘covidiots’ have become almost as familiar as ‘pandemic fatigue.’ This feeds into a widespread narrative of blame whereby the spread of infections is explained in terms of individuals and groups who choose to break the rules, rather than failures of public health response.” Most importantly: “Indeed, in many ways the narratives of blame serve to project the real frailties of government policy onto the imagined frailties of public psychology.”

As Reicher and Drury said as early as March 2020: “We have to change the way we frame the epidemic. We have to change how we see the individual and society. We have to collectivise – or we die.”

We have to move from an individual framing to an environmental or ecological framing, if you will. Individuals don’t behave (better or worse) in a vacuum. They respond to what James Gibson called ‘affordances‘ (for example thick ice ‘affords’ skating) and these are to a large extent a political and policy matter before they are a psychological one. Framing is a political act too: it leads to different views of the world and creates social realities, for good or for ill. We therefore need to keep an eye on framing, especially in politics and in pandemics.

Image by Tumisu from Pixabay

Posted in infectious diseasesLanguage