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Pandemic fatigue: Reinvigorating the public to prevent COVID-19 — Policy framework for supporting pandemic prevention and management [EN/RU]

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Lead authors Katrine Bach Habersaat and Andrea Elisabeth Scheel

Executive summary

Despite documented public support for pandemic response strategies across the WHO European Region, Member States are reporting signs of pandemic fatigue in their populations – here defined as demotivation to follow recommended protective behaviours, emerging gradually over time and affected by a number of emotions, experiences and perceptions.

Responding to a request from Member States for support in this field, this document provides a framework for the planning and implementation of national and subnational strategies to maintain and reinvigorate public support to prevent COVID-19.

Pandemic fatigue is an expected and natural response to a prolonged public health crisis – not least because the severity and scale of the COVID-19 pandemic have called for the implementation of invasive measures with unprecedented impacts on the daily lives of everyone, including those who have not been directly affected by the virus itself.

The framework is intended to support pandemic prevention and management.

Given the complex nature of pandemic fatigue, a multifactorial action plan is needed. Actions must be based on the barriers and drivers experienced by people, and must be implemented in an integrated way across all levels of society.

Strategies to maintain and reinvigorate public support must be informed by public health, societal, cultural and economic considerations, and must ensure that no one is left behind.

We propose four key strategies for governments to maintain and reinvigorate public support for protective behaviours.

Understand people. Collect and use evidence for targeted, tailored and effective policies, interventions and communication.

Allow people to live their lives, but reduce risk. Wide-ranging restrictions may not be feasible for everyone in the long run.

Engage people as part of the solution. Find ways to meaningfully involve individuals and communities at every level.

Acknowledge and address the hardship people experience and the profound impact the pandemic has had on their lives.

For any initiative, policy or communication aiming to maintain and reinvigorate public support for protective behaviours, we propose five cross-cutting principles.

Be transparent by sharing reasons behind restrictions and any changes made to them, and by acknowledging the limits of science and government.

Strive for the highest possible level of fairness in recommendations and restrictions.

Be as consistent as possible in messages and actions, and avoid conflicting measures.

Coordinate to avoid mixed messages across experts and spokespeople.

Strive for predictability in unpredictable circumstances, for example, by using objective criteria for restrictions and any changes made to them.

As a quick list of concrete actions, we propose the following.

Think local. Reach out to civil society groups and ask them to find creative ways of motivating their members and peers.

In every workplace, school, university, youth club and more, talk to users. Ask them how they would like to implement recommended behaviours. Ask them what support they need from you.

Develop guidance on living life while reducing risk. Find creative ways of communicating such guidance, and avoid constant changes.

Prepare safe solutions for upcoming national celebrations where people gather across geographies and generations. Engage individuals, workplaces, public transportation systems, the retail sector, retirement homes and more in discussions about ways to reduce risk. Provide clear recommendations.

Understand which measures may be unbearable in the long term. Amend or balance such restrictions with other measures (economic, social, psychological), taking into account the epidemiological risk.

Make recommended behaviours easy and inexpensive. This can involve the provision of fast and cheap internet connections, free masks and hand sanitizers, accessible hand-washing areas, spaces for social interaction, opportunities for teleworking, and more.

Appeal to people rather than blame, scare or threaten them. Recognize that everyone is contributing.

Be clear, precise and predictable. Use simple and digestible infographics as an effective way of communicating restrictions and risks – and how they are related.

Conduct regular qualitative and quantitative population studies. Take the findings seriously. Use them to inform action.

Tailor communication to specific groups that experience demotivation. Test messages and visuals with sample populations before launching them.