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'Other crises are vying for our attention': Why people have stopped talking about Covid-19
Covid-19 is still spreading in Ireland but other major issues like Ukraine, inflation and climate change have taken prominence in people’s minds.

THE COUNTER ON Ireland’s Covid-19 caseload continues to tick upwards – but the virus’ public prominence has largely faded away.

For some, particularly people who are immunocompromised, the pandemic is still a significant worry.

However, the overall trend has been a decline in behaviours aimed at avoiding infection like limiting contacts or travel. 

Experts told The Journal that other crises “vying for our attention” such as the war in Ukraine, inflation, and climate change have occupied the forefront of many people’s minds, even as cases rose rapidly earlier in the summer.

Since April – after a significant peak in March – case numbers have fluctuated week by week, rising quite quickly in June followed by a bumpy July and relatively low numbers in the few days of August.

Cases Covid Summer 2022 Covid-19 Data Hub Covid-19 cases confirmed through PCR tests in May, June, July and the start of August Covid-19 Data Hub

The Department of Health releases new Covid-19 case figures on a weekly basis each Wednesday. In the most recent update, there were 3,461 PCR-confirmed cases and 3,596 positive antigen tests registered on the HSE website.

In comparison, at the end of June, there were 13,584 cases confirmed through PCR tests and 17,640 positive antigen tests registered in a single week, a 26.9% rise on the previous week. 

Hospital numbers peaked at a high for 2022 at the end of March with 1,624 infected patients; fell to 167 at the end of May; rose rapidly to 135 in mid-July and dropped again in recent weeks to 380 on Friday.

However, even as case numbers and hospitalisations rise and fall, the pandemic has remained a far less significant feature of many people’s lives compared to 2020 and 2021.

In June, social activity was at its highest since the start of the pandemic, according to a Social Activity Measure conducted by the Economic and Social Research Institute (ESRI), a study on the public’s response to Covid-19 that was carried out nearly 40 times since January 2021.

The last round of the study, done between 14 and 21 June, found that the number of people socialising and the average numbers of locations and people visited were all at their highest, as well as inter-county and international travel.

Speaking to The Journal, Research Officer at the ESRI’s Behavioural Research Unit Dr Shane Timmons said “at the time, cases were rising when those data were collected but we didn’t see a corresponding rise in worry”.

“It suggests what happened, and what was observed in the data when vaccines were rolled out, is that the previously strong relationship between case numbers and how worried people were decoupled,” Dr Timmons said.

Over the pandemic, hospitalisations became a more important driver of worry than cases, although by the end of June, an increase in worry due to the rising hospitalisations was not identified.

“That could be linked to decreased media coverage of the pandemic and hospitalisations but it’s difficult to put a causal picture on it because the media might not be reporting it because they think people aren’t interested in it, so there’s a circularity issue there,” Dr Timmons explained.

The decline in concern may also be attributed to a growing share of the population having already experienced the virus.

“People who had contracted Covid-19 tended to be a lot less worried about it than people who hadn’t yet contracted it,” Dr Timmons said.

“Over time, the proportion of the population who have contracted Covid has increased, so you have those who are then becoming less worried about it.”

Pandemic ‘fatigue’?

The idea of pandemic ‘fatigue’ – that people simply became tired of thinking about the virus – is likely less important than other factors, he said.

“Fatigue with the pandemic is not something that we’ve seen to drive behaviour per se, mostly because people being fed up with the pandemic was a fairly universal feeling and some people were still complying and following restrictions and taking precautions and some people weren’t, so that’s not really a good determinant of behaviour,” Dr Timmons said.

In January, only around 20% of people reported that they rarely or never engaged in any mitigation behaviours against Covid-19. By June, that rose to 60%.

Crucially, a major factor in the decline of the pandemic’s prominence is the rise of other major issues taking up the public’s attention.

The first six months of the year have been a tumultuous time in Ireland and across the world between Russia’s invasion of Ukraine, increases in cost of living and inflation, the knock-on effects of Brexit, the international outbreak of monkeypox, and ever-growing signs of the climate crisis. 

“There is a concept in psychology called the ‘finite pool of worry’, that people only have enough worry to go around to certain issues. Now, the most recent research on that suggests that it’s actually a finite pool of attention that we have,” Dr Timmons said.

“People can remain worried about things like climate change but just not be paying attention to it.

That’s what happened during the early stages of the pandemic. People, if you asked them, they would say they were worried about climate change but they weren’t paying as much attention to it as normal.
“Whereas now, with Covid-19 being perceived as a less serious issue for people, either because they’ve had it or that they’ve been vaccinated against it, attention can then turn to other issues.”

He said other issues, such as the climate crisis, are “now probably a lot more salient for people than during the stages of the pandemic… We do have a lot more crises vying for our attention.”

However, for around one-fifth of the public, Covid-19 remained a worry even as it slipped off the radar.

Those who are immunocompromised or have vulnerable friends or family have likely had more cause for concern than others, particularly as restrictions lifted in public settings like shops and transport.

“There was a consistent 20% of people who remained highly worried about Covid anytime we were collecting the data, even during stages of relatively low levels of hospitalisations and case numbers,” Dr Timmons said.

“It didn’t really drop below 20%, with one in five people remaining worried about it up until the end of June.

“They might not be getting the attention in the media – perhaps their attention is directed towards other concerns – but my intuition would be that they’re not much less worried about it, at least that group.”

‘You’d replace one anxiety with another’

The last time Ireland came out of such a pandemic was a century ago as the influenza known as Spanish flu that had swept the country began to subside.

Dr Ida Milne, a lecturer in European History at Carlow College and expert on the Spanish flu pandemic in 1918 and 1919, said that much like now, the attention people gave to the flu slipped away before the illness itself did, though fear remained that it would resurface.

“They left it behind. It was partly because there was so much going on in Ireland at the time,” Dr Milne outlined.

Ireland, still under Britain’s control, had suffered during World War One and then faced the War of Independence and Civil War “very quickly after the flu” in the following years.

“People wanted to move on from a traumatic time,” Dr Milne said.

The war brought inflation and a shortage of resources, creating other concerns for people.

You’d replace one anxiety with another.”

Interviewing a man from Kildare in his 90s about his experience of the Spanish flu, which he caught at age five, Dr Milne asked his perspective on why people stopped talking about the pandemic.

“He said, look, it came back and it came back again and it came back a third time, so we felt we’d be better off not talking about it and that way it wouldn’t come back again.

“We’re beginning to understand that with all the waves we’ve had [of Covid-19], that it’s something we don’t really want to remember.”

The worst of the flu receded from April 1919. Although people continued to die, it received less attention and was covered less in the media, Dr Milne said.

“There might be a little, ‘11 people died in Longford this week from the flu’, but it would be just a little side note in the provincial notes rather than a lead story anymore,” she said.

“The background anxiety was still there. In 1925, there was a higher than usual flu season and really the only way you would know apart from the death statistics is that they were talking in the newspapers about [how] it ‘seems precautionary to start disinfecting the buses again given the current conditions’.

“I expect we’ll see it in discussions about masking from time and again where anxiety will come to the fore when the situation with the disease changes, because we still can’t be confident that there isn’t going to be even another more dangerous wave – but it seems unlikely now,” concluded Milne.

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