Friends pressed close together for a selfie. Groups out celebrating. People visiting each other’s homes.
When scrolling through Instagram these days, Sukhmeet Singh Sachal sees what look like scenes from another era.
“I think a lot of people have been feeling the COVID-19 fatigue, especially now; it’s almost been a year,” says Sachal, a medical student at the University of British Columbia.
While people reluctant to embrace public health measures have haunted us since the beginning of our coronavirus odyssey, Sachal notes that those he’s seeing now are different: They know the rules, they’ve followed them in the past.
They’re just tired.
“We’re now into the depths of the tunnel,’” says Shachi Kurl, president of public opinion firm the Angus Reid Institute.
On Friday, it will be one year since a plane lifted off a tarmac in Beijing, carrying a man who was, unbeknownst to him, infected with a brand new coronavirus.
It’s been long, tedious months of public health restrictions, and while a vaccine has sparked hope, most people will be waiting months more, Kurl says.
“There’s all kinds of science around how marathoners can keep from hitting a wall at some point,” Kurl says. “There’s no reason why those same factors don’t apply to people who are waiting anxiously to resume some semblance of their life.”
If this pandemic were, in fact, a marathon, we’d be sweaty and tired as we headed into the second half, but there would still be miles to go. Yet after staying strong for months, people are getting complacent. The vaccines have offered new hope, but also, perhaps, an excuse for some not to be as vigilant as they have in the past.
Ontario is back under a stay-at-home order; cases are on the rise in many parts of the country; and the spectre of the new, more-transmissible U.K. variant looms. It’s cold. It’s dark. And it turns out that some of the very people who urged us to stay home spent their holiday at the beach.
Canada, meet the wall.
“Except for like, medical students, the other youth that are on my Facebook, they’re not really following public health protocols like they were,” Sachal says. “And that concerns me, because the COVID cases are only going to rise if we don’t stop it.”
Experts say a mixture of inconsistent messaging and lack of consideration for how people are feeling — mixed with good, old-fashioned exhaustion — are making it increasingly difficult for people to stay on the public health bandwagon.
Instead of threatening fines or blaming rule breakers, officials need to be empathetic, realize the different challenges people are facing, and try to win back public trust.
“I think we’re seeing far too little recognition that this new phase involves a new mix of emotions than what we had in March or April, when it was more fear and anxiety about an unknown disease,” says Heidi Tworek, an associate professor in international history and public policy at the University of British Columbia.
“We’re just in a very different emotional world at this point.”
People are feeling “understandable frustration” after almost a year under pandemic restrictions, she says.
Add to that the beating that public trust has taken, thanks to arguably unclear or mixed messaging from government officials — some of whom defied their own instructions to stay home in favour of beach trips or jaunts to their vacation homes.
In the United Kingdom, this phenomenon has been dubbed the “Cummings Effect,” after Dominic Cummings, a senior adviser to the British prime minister, took his family and drove to visit his parents in March, despite the country’s stay-at-home orders.
Subsequent research suggested a significant decrease in public confidence in the government — and a drop in willingness to adhere to lockdown guidelines as a result.
“The latest episode of politicians behaving badly has certainly stripped away any incentive that people have to continue to feel that esprit de corps, that sense of we’re all in this together,” Kurl says.
Government communications played a critical role in the first few months of the pandemic as everyone tried to wrap their head around a brand new virus, Tworek says.
In general, she says, Canada’s official communicators have lacked the capacity to scale up as demand for clear information about public health reached a new high. There hasn’t been a lot of ability shown to translate things into different languages or make messaging relevant to the audience.
In comparison, Tworek points to Taiwan and Korean, which created permanent offices for pandemic communication after SARS, allowing them to push a huge amount of information out quickly, which helped translate into real-world gains, such as more people wearing masks.
The German Red Cross rolled out a WhatsApp chatbot to connect with people one-on-one. Senegal posted official videos to official social media channels of imams and Christian leaders washing their hands and observing COVID-19 rules.
Now, as we enter a phase of the pandemic that feels emotionally and epidemiologically unique, Canadian governments are struggling to update their strategies, she says.
The message also needs to catch up, Tworek says. This time last year, a lot of message was fear-based and tried to communicate how to stay safe; but now, it needs to pivot to convincing a tired public to keep doing what they’re already doing.
She argues politicians are over-relying on news conferences and talking heads to try to get points across, rather than connecting with people on a more personal level.
Since the beginning of the pandemic, Kevin Parent has spent countless hours online, reading the comments. He’s the lead on the social media accounts for Ottawa Public Health, one of the unexpected stars of pandemic communication.
Parent’s humblebrag, as he calls it, is that Ottawa’s is the most followed public health unit on Twitter in North America. The account got its 102,700 followers by making jokes, putting out information in a cheeky way and, at least once, bantering with movie star Ryan Reynolds.
Those behind it also read all the responses they get, and often end up in conversations with other accounts. The feedback informs what they post about, he says.
But Parent is quick to point out it’s more than just a funny Twitter account.
“While our approach might seem new and different, the evidence behind it isn’t; you know, we are following crisis and miscommunication best practices,” he says.
“When communicating during a time of crisis, you must be empathetic, you must recognize that you’re making big asks of people, like asking them to change their entire lives. We have to make sure we acknowledge that we know that’s difficult,” he says.
Using this lighthearted and personal strategy, the account, which pre-pandemic was devoted to more germane public health fare such as healthy eating and preventing Lyme disease, has become a critical source of COVID-19 information.
Parent says he’s noticed a shift in the people he interacts with online as we enter what he calls “that interesting in-between time,” in which people have hope thanks to the arrival of vaccine but still need to hang on. His team isn’t immune to that feeling, either.
“I’m mean, I’m talking to you from cooped up in my bedroom right now, because there’s three kids, including a newborn in the house,” he says.
“We’re living this alongside everybody else, so those real human emotions from our experiences, they come out in the comms.”
The refrain that “We’re all in this together,” was common in the early days of the pandemic, but it’s now clear that’s not exactly the case, Sachal says.
“The storm is COVID, but we’re all in different boats,” he says. “That includes the different provinces, the different municipalities, the different health authorities, different ethnic groups.”
Sachal created a group now known as the COVID-19 Sikh Health Initiative over the summer after going to his gurdwara in Surrey, B.C., and seeing a lot of people not wearing masks. He quickly realized a lot of pandemic messaging wasn’t making it into non-English-speaking communities.
“I realized people were not paying attention to what the government was saying, even though I thought, personally, they were doing a good job in English, but I understand English,” he says.
“But I know, for instance, if my grandmother was here in Canada, she would have no idea what they were saying.”
Some messaging didn’t even make sense for the Sikh community, he says, pointing out that you can’t wear a normal mask if you’re wearing a turban. “That’s something that I think was overlooked a lot.”
So he set about creating posters and handouts in both English and Punjabi that culturally make sense, and also working with community members to make masks with extra-long ties.
Right now, as public health officials struggle to keep everyone on board with guidelines, he says, it’s going to get only more important to recognize everyone’s in a different situation.
Some of the people who aren’t at home or aren’t isolating might be scofflaws, he says, but others might not have the money to stay home, or might have an employer that won’t let them, or might be living in a multi-generational home.
“We need to really recognize that and work with people, not against them. I think when we start blaming people, they’re definitely not going to follow through with public health protocols,” he says.
“If we start playing the blame game of, you know, this community, that community, then we’re never going to get anywhere.”