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How to fight 'Covid fatigue' as America heads for a deadly winter

Sam Levin in Los Angeles
·8-min read
<span>Photograph: filadendron/Getty Images</span>
Photograph: filadendron/Getty Images

Fatigue with pandemic restrictions has hit many Americans at a time when it’s more important than ever that people take the virus seriously and stay home.

While the US contends with a huge surge in cases and record hospitalizations, federal inaction has forced local officials to adopt their own rules and messaging, creating a patchwork of confusing regulations that differ across the country, and are constantly changing. Polls suggest Americans are exhausted.

The Guardian talked to experts in psychology, public health and communications to get advice on how to convince their weary or misinformed loved ones to stay safe as we head into a deadly holiday season. The interviews have been edited and condensed for clarity.

How can we explain why it’s especially important now for people to stay home?

Dr Seema Yasmin, the director of the Stanford Health Communication Initiative, says it’s useful to convey that the risk of dying right now from Covid is increasing because hospitals across the US are already overrun with patients: “We’re talking about the whole country in some regards being a hotspot. There are 25 states facing a critical shortage of nurses, doctors and other staff. That means you really do not want to get Covid-19 right now. The chances of getting good treatment or getting a hospital bed are far less than earlier in the year.

“We’ve tried to share some hopeful messages – that the likelihood of dying from Covid-19 in the US had decreased, because we’ve learned how to treat patients,” she adds. “But all of that goes out the window if you can’t get people into a hospital bed.”

How do you convince people to take Covid seriously when they are exhausted after eight months?

“People should talk about why they have made the decision to stay home, to wear a mask and to socially distance,” says Emma Frances Bloomfield, an assistant professor of communication studies at the University of Nevada, Las Vegas, and an expert in science misinformation. “Frame it as a gain: ‘This is what I’m doing, and this is why I’m doing it,’ as opposed to a loss: ‘You’re not doing these things, and you’re wrong for not doing them.’

“And be a model – model wearing a mask, doing a Zoom hangout. Explain that people are dying and that you’re concerned about friends and family members you have in common getting sick. You can say, ‘I want all of my family members to be here for next Thanksgiving when we can have it in person.’”

What do you say to parents and grandparents desperate to gather after so long apart?

Bloomfield: “I think of it as running a race. It doesn’t matter if in the first three-quarters of the race you’ve done everything perfectly and you’re in the lead. If you bungle the last bit right at the finish line, you’re not going to win. At the beginning of the pandemic, there was so much uncertainty, we had no idea how long it was going to last. But now, the vaccines are on the horizon. There is a finish line. So we have to just keep going just a little bit longer, and then we will have all of the in-person activities and travel back soon.”

It can help to acknowledge that this sucks and is terrible. Acknowledge that Covid fatigue is real

Dr Seema Yasmin, Stanford

Yasmin: “It can help to acknowledge that this sucks and is terrible. Acknowledge that Covid fatigue is real, that we should not be in this mess, we should not be having to have lockdowns in November, and that this is happening because of government failure. So I point to other countries that have handled this better and show us how things could be different – and they can still be different starting from 20 January when we have a new president. On a personal level, that’s how I remind myself that we will get out of this, because eventually we will have grown-ups in charge. And there are models and best practices that end transmission. Look at New Zealand or Taiwan or Vietnam. I point to a picture of folks from New Zealand in May at the farmers’ market, hugging each other. We will get out of this.”

How do you respond to people who think they’ve been very careful and that one Thanksgiving gathering won’t make a difference?

Celeste Kidd, an assistant professor of psychology at University of California, Berkeley, says it’s helpful to make clear the potential ripple effects of individual choices: “Older people tend to only be considering the risks to themselves. But it’s important to emphasize that risks are shared. Maybe you personally are willing to take on the risk of possibly dying. But if you are seeing grandkids who attend daycare or school, contact could result in kids transmitting Covid to others there, like teachers. Point out that small indoor gatherings are a major source of transmission, and that hosting one involves risk to many other people outside of those who attend. Also, for grandparents willing to take on the risk of infection from grandkids, point out how horrible the grandkids would feel if that happened.

“It’s also worth noting that due to systemic inequities, some people are forced to take more risks than they should have to at work, so they can keep their health insurance or keep a roof over their head. They sometimes think, ‘I take more risk at my job, and it would be less risky to see my grandkids’. In that case, it’s helpful to remind people that this is not how risk works. Every chance for exposure that you’re adding, your risk is increasing.”

How do you sway people in your life who are more skeptical that the virus is a serious threat?

Bloomfield: “Find common authorities. If the person who is a skeptic is of a certain political party or a certain faith or in a certain community, you might find common authorities that they trust who can give them information, if they’re not going to listen to it directly from you. That can help support you in your argument. And engage in a dialogue. Don’t be condescending or patronizing, don’t treat them like an inferior.”

Yasmin: “It’s helpful to take a breath and take a step back from these difficult conversations and do a reset. You do not want to get aggravated or frustrated with someone. You don’t want them to feel like you’re nagging. Research also shows that when there is a particularly polarized conversation, adding facts, evidence and data is like sprinkling kerosene onto a fire. It doesn’t help. Instead, it’s good to start with a discussion point that is more about common ground you share. Like, we are both worried about Auntie Khadija who has asthma. And from there we reach a point of agreeing that not traveling might be a really good thing for Auntie Khadija, that might protect her.”

What about the people in your life who believe in conspiracy theories or misinformation?

Bloomfield “Concretize these abstract statistics of hundreds of thousands of deaths with examples and personal stories, especially of people who have contracted Covid and passed when they had previously thought it was a hoax. Make it more personal. People who accept misinformation are often in these echo chambers. Encourage them to read media outside of their current media environment. Trading resources can be helpful – you send me an article, and I’ll send you one. Part of what makes misinformation so persuasive is that it gets there first, and there’s an anchoring bias. So anything you can do to repeat information and share resources early and often, you can work to combat some of the misinformation that they’ve already had.”

Kidd points out that it’s most important to help people change their behavior, not their fundamental beliefs: “Don’t jump into attacking people. Ask people where they are coming from and show genuine interest, and listen. Believing that Covid is a hoax is not inherently a public policy or health risk. But refusing to wear a mask is. The real problem is the behavior that’s coming out of their pseudo-scientific beliefs.”

Any new steps that you are personally taking now to deal with fatigue while the risks are so great?

Kidd: “As humans, we need changes, we need variety. I tried out one of those subscription snack boxes where you don’t know what you’re going to get. We’ve rediscovered pen palling. With my three-year-old, we made a list of all the things we can do now that we wouldn’t have normally done that we found time to do. He was very interested in anatomy, so we did a frog dissection. You can order them prepped to your house.”

Bloomfield: “Some of the in-person things I miss the most are traditions, like going out to a nice restaurant to celebrate something nice that happened. Instead we do a stay-at-home cooking night. Some restaurants have a cook-at-home kit. So we recreate that tradition. My family does a weekly Zoom and catch-up – in a way we talk more than we did pre-Covid.”

Yasmin: “I’m in the Bay Area and I’ve essentially been in lockdown mode since March. We’re not really going to do anything differently. In the early months, I was really diligent about entering a grocery store only once every two weeks. Now I slip up and go more. So now I’m doing a reset and being more diligent because things are so much worse now.”