We could be dealing with caution fatigue, warn experts

Covid mask

People are no longer as cautious as they used to be.

Wednesday July 01 2020

A common expression that gained popularity after the Covid-19 pandemic started, was “new normal”.

The world accepted that people had to adjust their lives to suit the unwelcome visitor until the nightmare was over.

As the numbers keep surging in Kenya and around the world, experts are trying to explain why this is happening despite tough measures to stop the virus being put in place.

Jacqueline Gollan, an associate professor of psychiatry and behavioural sciences at the Northwestern University Feinberg School of Medicine, attributed this to caution fatigue. She said this could be to blame for people not taking prevention measures as seriously as they used to. Gollan said in the Time that caution fatigue was a result of her research of about 15 years on depression, anxiety and decision making.

Juliet Mwangi, for instance, had paranoia when the first case of the virus was reported in Kenya. Today, she says: “I have stopped being overly cautious.”

I probe into Juliet’s routine before the slack. Her script reads like that of a child growing up, who was told not to touch a socket with wet hands. Like the child, Juliet was very obedient and did everything she could to curb the spread of the deadly coronavirus at first. Not anymore.

“I used to thoroughly wash my hands every hour, or even minute, but now, I must confess, I only wash my hands when necessary,” she says. “I think I got used to the fact that this season is so prolonged and clearly out of my control.”

Livingstone Bosire is also not as careful as he used to be. Bosire says the disease is new and has no cure yet and at first he was always afraid of catching it, so he washed his hands and sanitised religiously. He was so anxious that at his work place he sanitised his keyboard, computer and his phone everyday. He washed his hands anywhere there was soap and water. Unfortunately, that is not the case anymore. Now, the former fearful Bosire says: “I only put on a mask because I fear arrest.”


HealthyNation asks Dr Frank Njenga, a psychiatrist, why the sudden change of heart among Kenyans when the numbers of those infected with Covid-19 are still going up. He uses the analogy of the boy who cried wolf to explain this, saying: “That behaviour is completely normal. Human beings respond that way.”

In his analogy, where the boy who cried wolf used treachery to get the attention of the villagers, claiming he had been attacked by a wolf, when it finally happened, no one came to his rescue as they thought it was one of his old tricks.

“If you wash your hands because you were told that the virus is coming and it does not come, you start thinking that it will never come, and the day that it eventually comes, it kills you,” says Dr Njenga.

He warned against laxity and going against the rules, saying: “The danger has not gone away and the virus will spread.”

Psychologist Loice Noo explains this phenomenon: “Caution fatigue has something to do with fear and anxiety. Once that happens, the reality sets in, but, as it is now, the reality has not set in for many people.”

She says fear and anxiety are psychological. When prolonged, people get used to them. Like Dr Njenga, she warns that this behaviour is dangerous. “There is a false sense of security since some people have not witnessed the disease first hand. That breeds carelessness, which could lead to a big surge in infections, and convincing people to go back to self-discipline, could be hard,” says Noo.

She says it takes individual responsibility to beat Covid-19. “We can overcome this by keeping on observing the rules set by the Health ministry” says the psychologist.

In as much as Dr Njenga terms the behaviour normal, he warns that it is detrimental to efforts to end the coronavirus. “To flatten the curve, let us hold on. The grip may have loosened a bit, but just hold on. We want Covid-19 out of our sight no matter how invisible it seems,” says Dr Njenga.

He says supposing a resurgence happens when numbers start to go down in future, we will have to learn from our mistakes. “It is in the lesson that will come when that happens, that people will learn to just do as they are told,” he adds.

Gollan told the Time: “There’s something powerful about hope, compassion, caring for others, altruism and,  it is those values that can help battle caution fatigue.”