After months of tirelessly fighting to keep COVID-19 under control, it may seem like the general public has given up. People are seeing friends more often, wearing masks less, and many state and local officials are moving forward with reopening plans despite increases in cases. An analysis by the Philadelphia Inquirer found that in the sixteen states that did not require masks in public as of June 24, 2020, new coronavirus cases rose by 84 percent over the previous two weeks, while the eleven states that mandate masks in public saw cases fall by 25 percent[i].
Many people are experiencing some anxiety about their communities reopening, but those who work in healthcare settings are likely having some stronger reactions, like anger and resentment. Public health experts warn that the U.S. doesn’t have enough public health workers to conquer another outbreak - this could require as many as 300,000 employees, despite the combined public health workforce being around 280,000 and shrinking[ii].
Doctors are also concerned about low morale, with their teams feeling abandoned and unsupported by their communities as the public is favoring individual selfishness over community health[iii].
Why are people being less careful?
With most of us nearly four months deep into social distancing and isolation, many people are beginning to experience “caution fatigue” - low motivation or energy to follow safety guidelines. This isn’t necessarily a conscious decision, but the brain becoming desensitized to warnings and reacting to information overload. Emotions like stress, depression, anxiety, and loneliness can hinder our ability to make complex decisions, so it’s unfortunately easy to think a situation is safer than it actually is right now. It doesn’t excuse unsafe or careless behavior but understanding the reasoning for this shift may alleviate some of the sting if you’re feeling like it is disrespectful or unappreciative of your hard work.
Take action - you may help change some minds.
As a healthcare professional, you likely have some insight and understanding of the situation that others might not.
- Consider sharing your story on social media or with friends and family. Tell them about the numbers you’re seeing, the hours you and your colleagues are putting in, how draining it is to work through this pandemic, and how crucial it is to keep cases low across the entire population. Don’t underestimate the power of your voice - many people are craving trustworthy information right now and hearing it from someone they know can make all the difference between them going to that restaurant or deciding to stay home.
- Reach out to your local and state officials, too - your firsthand account of what it’s like on the frontlines in your own community could make an impact. You can find your elected local, state, and federal officials and their contact information here.
Control what you can.
Regardless of what others are doing, focus on what you can control.
- Take a break from social media if you need to. If seeing pictures of people out and about gives you a burst of frustration, take some time off from social media or unfollow/mute anyone posting those photos - you can’t dictate their actions, but you can eliminate seeing it.
- Keep yourself in the present moment as often as possible, but especially when you start to get worked up - anger about something that happened in the past (or might happen in the future) doesn’t usually serve us. A great way to bring yourself back to the present is by focusing on your five senses: can you identify something you see, taste, smell, hear, and feel?
- Control who you communicate with. If friends or family members are being reckless or insisting that basic safety precautions are a violation of their rights, it’s okay to scale back on how often you talk to them right now. At the same time, you can add to your social circle and reach out for support - fellow healthcare workers probably have a good idea of how you’re feeling.
Let it out.
Talking helps us process a lot of feelings, but it can be especially effective with anger - as long as it doesn’t turn into a harmful outburst. Call up a trusted friend or family member (one who is being cautious) to vent. It may sound silly, but you can even talk to yourself. Say out loud why you’re angry or pretend you’re confronting someone who refuses to wear a mask or thinks that COVID-19 is no big deal. Giving yourself the space to express your anger in a safe way prevents it from bubbling up inside, which can help you avoid reaching a breaking point.
Acknowledge that this is probably not the only thing contributing to your frustration.
People don’t like uncertainty. It makes us uncomfortable and it is in our nature to try to soothe that discomfort as soon as possible. Anger is one way we attempt that - it is a response that often feels strong and clear, so it’s quite common to default to anger when everything else feels a bit shaky. While people getting more lenient about safety precautions is a very real problem, there are likely other stressors that you can tackle to dial down some of your heightened emotion for your own sake. Think about what else is adding to your stress, anxiety, or general sense of being overwhelmed - and then make a realistic plan for how to reduce that. MHA has some Do-It-Yourself tools that can help you with things like cognitive distortions, identifying underlying feelings
[i] Zarei, K. and Duchneskie, J. (2020. June 24). Coronavirus cases rise in states with relaxed face mask policies. The Philadelphia Inquirer. https://www.inquirer.com/health/coronavirus/covid-19-coronavirus-face-masks-infection-rates-20200624.html
[ii] Associated Press. (2020, April 16). Reopening could require thousands more public health workers. Modern Healthcare. https://www.modernhealthcare.com/labor/reopening-could-require-thousands-more-public-health-workers
[iii] Scott, D. & Barclay, E. (2020, July 16). Hospitals are running out of staff, supplies, and beds for Covid-19 patients — and this time could be worse. Vox. https://www.vox.com/2020/7/15/21317776/covid-19-coronavirus-florida-arizona-texas-california-hospitals