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Once they called it ‘combat fatigue’, and treated the soldiers who showed the symptoms with a mixture of pity and contempt. Then they renamed it “post-traumatic stress disorder,” (PTSD) and broadened the definition to cover similar responses to other stressful situations. And now we have COVID fatigue.
We’re coming up on two years since the first round of lockdowns and overflowing hospitals, and heading for yet another peak in the pandemic. At least five million people have died of COVID-19, and more than half a billion have had it. People are worn down, and it’s starting to show.
The anti-vaxxers are the first to feel the weight of public resentment. Once they were just seen as gullible simpletons taken in by online conspiracy theories. Now, in countries where the great majority of people are vaccinated, they have been promoted to the status of a public health risk.
They were always a reservoir of the virus, but now that most people are vaccinated the harm they do is more visible. In countries like Canada and France, where 80 percent or more of the population is fully vaccinated, up to 90 percent of the people filling intensive care beds that could be serving other critically ill people are unvaccinated COVID cases.
That’s why French President Emmanuel Macron, facing an election in April, found it politically advantageous to say: “We have to tell (the unvaccinated)… you will no longer be able to go to a restaurant. You will no longer be able to go for a coffee, you will no longer be able to go to the theatre. You will no longer be able to go to the cinema.”
Macron later told a newspaper: “as for the non-vaccinated, I really want to piss * them off.” So that they would go and get vaccinated, presumably, but he knew he was also catching the popular mood. He later told reporters in Paris: “People can get upset about a way of speaking that seems colloquial, but I fully stand by it. I’m upset about the situation we’re in.”
Canada’s Prime Minister Justin Trudeau took the same line, although in more genteel language. But he didn’t go as far as Quebec, the hardest hit of the Canadian provinces.
Quebec is not doing badly by international standards; the same population as Austria or Switzerland, and about the same number of deaths. But last week it required people to show proof of vaccination at provincial cannabis and alcohol shops – and it has now declared that the unvaccinated will have to pay a monthly ‘contribution’ to the cost of health care.
Even the Pope has chipped in, saying that getting vaccinated is a “moral obligation,” and you don’t have to share his faith to agree with that statement. Vaccines protect not only the people who get the jab, but all those who may come into contact with them. That was always true, but now the patience has run out because people are tired.
The most dangerous consequence of COVID fatigue, however, is the magical thinking that it induces even in some health professionals. “It’s been so long; surely it will be over soon,” is a wish, not a scientific statement.
Early this week David Nabarro, the World Health Organisation’s special envoy of COVID-19, suggested that most countries have already passed the halfway mark in the pandemic “marathon.”
“We can see the end in sight, but we’re not there (yet), and there’s going to be some bumps before we get there,” Nabarro said.
And Spain’s Prime Minister Pedro Sánchez said that the European Union should stop detailed tracking of the pandemic and “start evaluating the evolution of this disease with different parameters.” In plain Spanish, that means: treat it like a flu epidemic.
This is wishful thinking and nothing more. There is no reason to believe that the end is in sight, or that the next COVID variant won’t be worse than omicron, or even that infectious diseases always evolve towards lower lethality. Some do; some don’t.
And it won’t be over until the vaccination rates in Africa and Asia are the same as in Europe, East Asia and the Americas, plus 6-12 months.
Gwynne Dyer is a London-based independent journalist whose commentary is published in 45 countries.