Guarding against pandemic fatigue in Singapore's COVID-19 fight

Guarding against pandemic fatigue in Singapore's COVID-19 fight

empty spaces - a look at singapore during covid-19 circuit breaker
Lau Pa Sat food centre at mid-day during the circuit breaker. (Photo: Jeremy Long)

SINGAPORE: As Singapore experiences a rise in COVID-19 community cases, pandemic fatigue could be a concern as the country once again tightens its COVID-19 measures to address the spike in infections. 

On Sunday (May 16), Singapore confirmed 38 COVID-19 infections in the community - the highest number of community cases in more than a year -  with 15 active COVID-19 clusters.

Last week the Ministry of Health announced that Singapore would go into what it dubbed as "Phase 2 (Heightened Alert)" from May 16 through Jun 13, with gatherings restricted to groups of two and working from home becoming the default for workers here.

All primary and secondary schools, as well as junior colleges and Millennia Institute also shifted to full home-based learning from May 19, after several primary school students tested positive for COVID-19.

As the situation in Singapore becomes more challenging almost a year after the country exited from its “circuit breaker” period, how might pandemic fatigue be a factor in stemming the spread of the coronavirus, and what can be done to overcome it? 

READ: IN FOCUS: Tackling COVID-19 with targeted measures - the new normal for Singapore?

WHAT IS PANDEMIC FATIGUE? 

Pandemic fatigue is “a feeling of exhaustion from the changes that the pandemic has brought about, as well as feeling a sense of dread and irritation with the constant news of the pandemic”, as described by Dr Geraldine Tan, director and principal psychologist at private clinic The Therapy Room. 

People here were already feeling fatigued at the start of 2021 -  about a year since the COVID-19 pandemic hit Singapore - she said, adding that the introduction of further restrictions amid an increase in community cases would only make the exhaustion “more sore and painful”. 

Associate Professor Tan Ern Ser, a sociologist with the National University of Singapore, noted that people may have been feeling optimistic, thanks to the “vastly improving” situation in recent months, only to experience a sudden disappointment as Phase 2 restrictions were reintroduced.

This could lead to anxiety resulting from uncertainty about the future, as well as inconveniences brought about by COVID-19 precautionary measures, he said. 

“It is a real concern as it can affect our mental health, especially for those in danger of getting a pay-cut or worse, losing their job,” said Assoc Professor Tan. 

“I am having some fatigue as well,” infectious diseases expert Dr Leong Hoe Nam told CNA.

People, especially healthcare workers, are “very tired”, especially with all the bad news and the real risks they face, said Dr Leong.  

READ: The Big Read: Frontline healthcare workers pushed to limits by non-stop, never-ending COVID-19 fight

The inability to travel, even to nearby destinations, could also be worsening the fatigue, said Professor Teo Yik Ying, dean of the National University of Singapore's Saw Swee Hock School of Public Health. 

Singapore's non-resident population may feel the brunt of the travel restrictions as they are unable to return to their home countries to visit their family and friends, noted Prof Teo. 

"For this group of people, I expect the pandemic fatigue will be felt most acutely," he added. 

“I have definitely seen more and more (cases of fatigue) this year and they are not even aware that they are feeling fatigued from it,” said psychologist Dr Tan. 

Among the signs of pandemic fatigue are irritability, insomnia and lethargy, she said.

She added that those suffering from such fatigue may also experience feeling cynical about life and wanting to escape from their family members, as well as a sense of dread towards work. 

READ: Commentary: Five pandemic lessons we have learnt that should tide us over any surge in cases

A survey by Microsoft last year found that almost a third of workers in the Asia Pacific region citing increased rates of burnout since the start of the pandemic, stating that the lack of separation between work and personal obligations had negatively impacted their well-being.

The tech giant’s annual Work Trend Index - which surveyed more than 6,000 workers across eight countries - found Singapore to be the country with the highest number of workers facing increased burnout, with 29 per cent of respondents experiencing such stress. 

WHAT CAN HELP?

As the current crisis continues, pandemic fatigue could drag on for another six months to a year “at the very least”, said Dr Leong.  

“I think we need time out - and more space,” he said. 

While Dr Leong acknowledged there were no easy answers, he suggested that activities such as exercising, going out for a run, or even baking for some could help ease the sense of fatigue.

Dr Tan suggested that those experiencing pandemic fatigue adopt healthier habits with work, by setting clear boundaries between work and family. 

Despite restrictions on social gatherings, people should still connect with friends, she said, adding that they should also stay physically active and continue doing the things they enjoy. 

Employers should meanwhile check in regularly with their staff members and provide opportunities for social interactions within safe limits, given the current work-from-home arrangements, said Dr Tan. 

They should also try to be there for employees who may not be able to articulate their difficulties with the current arrangements, she added.

READ: Further monitoring of COVID-19 situation needed before any decision on circuit breaker, says Ong Ye Kung

Woman wearing face mask at esplanade park
A woman wearing a face mask resting at Esplanade Park. (File photo: Calvin Oh)

SAFE MANAGEMENT MEASURES

A report by the World Health Organization (WHO) in Europe noted that such fatigue leads to “demotivation to follow recommended protective behaviours, emerging gradually over time and affected by a number of emotions, experiences and perceptions”. 

Still, despite mask wearing and safe distancing having been the norm in Singapore for more than a year now, observers do not expect that people here will abandon these or other COVID-19 safe management measures. 

Prof Teo of the Saw Swee Hock School of Public Health said people here have been “exceptionally compliant and tolerant” and appeared to have “accepted (that) these measures are here to stay for a while”. 

“There will always be a small segment of the population that will be less compliant, but by and large, Singapore and Singaporeans have actually done well with respect to complying with the restrictions put in,” he said. 

Sociologist Assoc Prof Tan said people understand the need to comply with such regulations - not so much because they are mandatory - but because they matter for the health, life and livelihood of the population. 

Prof Teo said that despite any fatigue, what can be done to ensure adherence to safe management measures is to continue with “repeated clear and consistent communications” to the public about the importance of keeping to these practices.  

READ: Be 'obsessed' with wearing masks properly: Experts urge compliance as COVID-19 cases grow

The authorities should also maintain enforcement of safe management measures in public spaces and “continue to develop and maintain the trust between Government, employers (and) people, that all possible efforts are in place to ensure that Singapore stays focused on maintaining public health and the economy”, he said. 

Still, Dr Leong is confident the country will survive the current crisis.

"One thing is for sure, Singapore will come out stronger as certain as the sun will rise tomorrow," he said. 

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Source: CNA/az(ta)

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