The Malta Independent 24 October 2020, Saturday

Covid fatigue and policy responses

Michael Briguglio Thursday, 15 October 2020, 07:35 Last update: about 8 days ago

A few days ago, Deputy Prime Minister Chris Fearne emphasised the importance of discipline and responsibility as covid fatigue starts to set in. As he put it, many people ‘are feeling fed up with this situation and cooperation levels in a lot of countries have reduced.’

One can witness examples of this in Malta, where people are interpreting and living out the Covid context in different ways. For example, some people are permanently using masks as they venture outdoors, whilst others are drinking the night away in pubs with no sense of social distancing whatsoever. On a national level, a recent scientific survey by University of Malta colleague Vincent Marmara showed that the vast majority of respondents agree with certain restrictions and government action - such as enforcement - on the matter, yet support for lockdown measures was very low.  

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In the meantime, Tedros Adhanom Ghebreyesus - head of the World Health Organization - has warned against policies which hope to achieve ‘herd immunity’ by exposing people to it, dubbing this as unethical.

Ghebreyesus also explained how in the current context, herd immunity is in itself being interpreted in different ways and not necessarily as meant by the standard definition of herd immunity by public health agencies such as the WHO. The latter interprets herd immunity via vaccination, ‘in which a population can be protected from a certain virus if a threshold of vaccination is reached.’

The head of the WHO explained how, for instance, for measles, if 95% of the population is vaccinated, the remaining 5% will also be protected from the spread of the virus. For polio, the threshold is estimated at 80%.

Before someone mentions Sweden as an example of the ‘alternative’ interpretation of herd immunity, one should enquire about the polices carried out in this country. To begin with, Sweden’s approach had its own type of (albeit less draconian) restrictions and has since been adapted, not least because of its initial failures in protecting the elderly and ethnic minorities. For example, Sweden re-introduced a tailored system of contact tracing and quarantining. Besides, Swedish society - erstwhile known for its comprehensive welfare system - is characterised by a high level of trust within the community and this may influence the conformity to norms such as social distancing.  

Indeed, policy making related to Covid-19 is characterised by intersections of different spheres namely, but not only, at national, medical, cultural, political, economic, and social levels.

Consequently, some social scientists are investigating ‘coronavirus culture’ and the questions it puts forward. For example, Alan Bradshaw, professor of social marketing writes about this in The Conversation, a leading publisher of research-based news and analysis where academics and journalists collaborate.

Bradshaw discusses etiquette and sensitivities in different social practices such as online meetings, facial gestures when wearing a mask, and face-to-face chatting. He highlights the changing sense of community- both physical and digital - such as that within households, localities, and social media communication. We may have to face tough choices such as who to maintain as part of our physical bubble, how frequently to communicate virtually, and what type of activities to entertain. The upcoming Christmas season raises a lot of dilemmas and choices in this regard.

Besides, consumer culture faces changes both in type of shopping – for example through the surge of online shopping – and through what we buy to adapt to the new normal. Perhaps one may be buying less clothes but more communication equipment such as bluetooth headphones.

The world of work also faces challenges in areas such as commuting, work-life balance, organisational challenges, power dynamics and intersection with other sectors such as schooling. Incidentally, pre-covid Malta in 2019 registered the highest share of employed persons in the EU who work under time pressure (21%), according to a recent Eurostat release.

In turn, such examples intersect with the plurality of family forms, situations, and cultures that we each form a part of. We may be experiencing different realities in relation to mental health, financial income, and social networks, among others.

At the same time, we encounter information overload, and not all of us are equipped to distinguish between evidence-based knowledge and fake news. We may even have a lack of time to weigh the information in question. 

From a policy perspective, politicians and other stakeholders may themselves be subject to such challenges. Here, Malta could increase investment in evidence-based deliberative fora which can help inform decision makers in policy making. For example, parliament can have a professional research infrastructure. Professional advisory services can also be mainstreamed in policy making across state and civil society.

As we navigate through our everyday lives, the Covid question becomes at once urgent and complex. There are no magic formulas, and we should be wary of sloganeering which proposes ‘undeniable’ solutions, often without the backing of evidence. Working together and maximising our knowledge resources is preferable to producing quick fix propaganda hungry for popularity.

Dr Michael Briguglio is a sociologist and senior lecturer at the University of Malta

www.michaelbriguglio.com

 

 

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