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Pandemic Fatigue Is Just Exhaustion in the Face of a Failed State

Americans are increasingly frustrated by the obligation to ride out a global disaster on their own. They have every reason to be.

Octavio Jones/Getty Images

The coronavirus is once again on the rise in the United States, but panic over the recent record surge in infections and hospitalizations is another thing entirely. Pandemic fatigue, The Wall Street Journal reported earlier this week, has set in worldwide, and after seven months of avoiding social contact and public places, people are unsurprisingly letting down their guard. According to the Journal, while 84 percent of Americans said they were avoiding small gatherings back in April, that number has since dwindled to a mere 45 percent. The percentage of people avoiding restaurants and other public places has likewise fallen from around 80 to 53 percent. Some of that no doubt reflects people moving to lower-risk outdoor gatherings; yet, as The New York Times put it earlier this month, “If the spring was characterized by horror, the fall has become an odd mix of resignation and heedlessness.”

After more than half a year of lockdowns, remote work, and social distancing guidelines that have kept friends and family largely separated from each other, it’s become increasingly difficult for the public to maintain a constant state of high alarm even as the death toll continues to climb. And while the weariness over quarantining and limiting one’s contact with others is clearly a global phenomenon, in the U.S., pandemic fatigue also appears to be bound up with a certain exhaustion over the unspoken cultural mandate that Americans weather this disaster purely through individual adherence to social distancing guidelines and hunkering down frontier-style with only one’s household, waiting for the danger to pass without help from the government. According to national polling, a clear majority of Americans are eager for the government to deliver a new stimulus package, which makes the ongoing congressional deadlock and Senate Republicans’ hostility to passing a second relief bill even more grotesque. We’ve been left to fend for ourselves in a public health crisis, and the delusion that we can individually bootstrap our way out of it without any kind of assistance has mostly evaporated. “I feel like we’ll be trapped in this situation forever,” one laid-off worker waiting for a new stimulus package told Marketwatch last week.

Though reports of recklessly large gatherings and individual bad behavior still reliably make the headlines, Americans have, for the most part, tried to do their part to mitigate the pandemic, particularly in the absence of the kinds of government measures that other countries adopted in the early days, such as simply paying people to stay home. Even now, in a country notorious for its pockets of anti-vaxxer sentiment, a record number of people are getting flu shots at the urging of public health experts, and most people agree on the utility of masks in public, regardless of their political affiliation. But the social contract has frayed dangerously thin as the Trump administration (which previously suggested—and suggested and suggested—that the pandemic would be over by April) drags its feet on any kind of action and Senate Republicans continue to block an infusion of federal funding to states and cities.

It gets rather difficult to ask individuals to do their part when, for instance, the few state and federal protections that exist for renters still leave people on the hook for missed payments and offer no solutions for managing the rent debt that’s accumulating. Or when the same people who lost their jobs and then their homes are now in danger of having their belongings auctioned off, too, because eviction protections never extended to storage space. If the government—that is, the primary entity with the power to enact wide-scale economic relief right now—won’t lift a finger to help, how exactly can it expect a population of 328 million people to keep vigilantly following various distancing and sheltering guidelines as the sole cure for a public health crisis?

Over the last few months, as the anxiety and despondency that accompanies prolonged social isolation has deepened, medical professionals have offered various tips and tricks for people combating coronavirus-induced malaise. “Create some predictable routines,” the Vanderbilt University Medical Center advised. “Focus on managing the things you have control over.” Likewise, UCLA’s hospital network urged, “Usher more joy into your days by creating new traditions. You’ll have something fun to look forward to and you might even decide to keep it up once the pandemic has passed.” As Colette Shade wrote here earlier this month, though such advice might be well-intentioned, and occasionally even useful, positive thinking alone won’t remedy our national pandemic fatigue. There’s no single switch that can flip it on or off, of course. But a functioning, minimally humane government would be a good start.