Pandemic fatigue has fueled political mistrust and conspiracy belief in Europe and the United States

Many of us struggled to follow official restrictions as the COVID-19 pandemic dragged on. We have experienced pandemic fatigue. And that fatigue has led to widespread political discontent in Western democracies, according to a new study from Aarhus University, just published in the scientific journal Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences (PNAS).

“Previous research has found that small groups of people have been radicalized and pandemic fatigue has proven to be a health challenge, but our new study shows that we face challenges far beyond the realm of health. health or the radicalization of certain groups,” says Michael Bang. Petersen, professor of political science at Aarhus University and one of the researchers behind the study.

For example, large segments of the public respond that they support protests against government policies, that they are concerned about their own democratic rights, or that they believe the government is hiding important information about the coronavirus from the public.

Such political discontent is closely linked to feelings of pandemic fatigue, the study found.

“Based on our research method, we can be quite sure that there is not only a correlation between pandemic fatigue and political discontent. On the contrary, fatigue is a direct cause of political discontent” , says Frederik Jørgensen, assistant professor of political science at Aarhus University and lead author of the study.

Political and academic debate on “fatigue”

During the pandemic, researchers and authorities discussed the concept of pandemic fatigue and its existence in populations. On the one hand, the UK government has been criticized for delaying its lockdown during the first wave of the pandemic on the exact argument that the restrictions could generate fatigue.

“Our results are important in this debate because they demonstrate that citizens experience fatigue during this type of crisis, in which the government imposes strict but often necessary measures on its citizens. And it turns out that the loneliness during the pandemic in particular served to induce fatigue,” says Frederik Jørgensen.

Authorities can prevent fatigue

The researchers collected 13 sets of data from Denmark, the UK, Germany, France, Italy, Hungary, Sweden and the US. The surveys were conducted steadily in 2020 and 2021, as epidemic curves and restrictions in each country rose and fell at different rates, with some countries being more affected than others by the COVID-19 pandemic. But there is a clear trend beyond national borders: Fatigue increases over time, as the stringency of restrictions increases and as the number of deaths decreases.

According to the researchers, the latter is important for the adoption of appropriate policies. When the number of deaths is high, citizens report lower levels of fatigue.

“Citizens are able to follow the restrictions when these are necessary. This means there can be a solid basis for tightening and easing restrictions as needed, instead of keeping them at a constant level as Germany and other countries have done. By tightening and easing restrictions, authorities appear to be able to minimize pandemic fatigue and prevent it from lasting – and thus prevent political discontent from rising even further,” says Professor Michael Bang Petersen, who leads the pandemic research project of which this study is a part.

More crises, more fatigue and more political discontent

The head of the research project notes that several Western democracies were strained by polarization and destabilization even before the COVID-19 pandemic. He also notes that the world faces a series of other crises that could add fuel to the fire. For example the climate crisis and the current energy crisis.

“Citizens can feel tired and direct their frustrations at the authorities also in these crises. Fatigue during a crisis is something authorities should take very seriously and take active steps to avoid. One of those steps could be open communication that explains why action is needed,” says Michael Bang Petersen, professor of political science at Aarhus University.

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Facts

We strive to adhere to the principles of Danish universities for good research communication. For this reason, we provide the following information in addition to this article:

Type of study:

Longitudinal and panel surveys collected in the United States, United Kingdom, Germany, France, Italy, Hungary, Sweden and Denmark.

External collaborators:

None.

External funding:

The study is part of the How Democracies Cope with COVID-19: A Data-Driven Approach (HOPE) research project, which is funded by the Carlsberg Foundation.

Conflict of interest:

None.

Link to the scientific article:

www.pnas.org/doi/10.1073/pnas.2201266119

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