Author: Ryan James Tan Wei Ren
Research Head: Aces Low Ying Xuan
It has been more than 2 years since COVID-19 struck Singapore. Although some normalcy has returned, it is a common consensus that life in Singapore is a far cry from what it was pre-pandemic. Safe Management Measures (SMM), such as mandatory mask wearing and a 5 person cap on social gatherings, are still in place. Additionally the country saw a sharp spike in the number of daily infections during the Chinese New Year period, rising to over 13,000 cases on the 9th of February. Singapore’s battle against COVID-19 is far from over, but there are growing signs that citizens have grown tired of living in this new normal, which could be dangerous to the country’s battle against the pandemic.
COVID-19 fatigue on the general public
COVID-19 fatigue stems from a combination of emotions that includes sadness, boredom and frustration (Schrader, 2020). As people continue to receive news of consistently high numbers of daily infection and death tolls, they have grown desensitised to these statistics. Many view the virus to be a low threat to them, since the majority are vaccinated or have already contracted the virus before, leaving them naturally immune (Levine, 2022). In addition, a large amount of frustration has started to build up, as other countries, such as the United Kingdom (UK) and Australia, have begun to ease restrictions, while Singapore has hovered in this state. This was especially apparent in July 2021, when the government decided to return to Phase 2 (heightened alert) after just one month of easing restrictions. Singaporeans felt disgruntled by the changing of restrictions, as it seemed that the country had taken a step forward towards reopening, only to take two steps backwards. It is natural for humans to react strongly towards injustice and unfairness (Flodman, 2020) and an experiment was conducted by Frans de Waal to illustrate this behaviour. When 2 monkeys were given the same reward (a cucumber) for completing a task, they were willing to repeat it. However, when one monkey was given a better reward (a grape), the other monkey started to react angrily and refuse the cucumber. This illustrated the natural reaction of humans towards injustice and unfairness (Flodman, 2020), which is a reason why Singaporeans have started to develop COVID-19 fatigue, as they want the freedom and easing of restrictions that other countries have started to enjoy.
The combination of the above leads to the potential flouting of restrictions, as people begin to let their guard down. This was amplified during the recent New Year’s Eve countdown party at Clarke Quay, where a large group of revellers breached safe management rules to usher in the New Year. The Singapore government ruled it as a potential superspreader event and this is the first manifestation of the fatigue that Singaporeans have been facing. Also, 78% of Singaporeans interviewed by TODAY newspaper said they were tired of the restrictions, despite having a high vaccination rate, circumstances in Singapore remained as rigid (Low & Zalizan, 2022). Therefore, individuals have started to act less rationally and responsibly as they underestimate the consequences of their actions.
In behavioural economics, this is known as the dual system theory, where economist Daniel Kahneman explains why people do not act rationally (Hollingworth & Barker, n.d). He explains that individuals have 2 sets of decision-making processes. The first is impulsive and acting without thinking, while the second is a more cognitive thinking process. In the ideal world, individuals would use the second process to make the most rational choice, where marginal utility would be higher or equal to the marginal cost. However, in reality, individuals tend to use the first process more often, having the tendency to to make impulsive decisions. Therefore, the phenomena of people breaking SMM and flouting covid-19 restrictions are likely due to their irrational decision making, a result of the combination of fatigue and impulsiveness. Furthermore, behavioural economics warns us that the situation could get worse. Those suffering from fatigue have admitted that they let their guard down and flout the COVID-19 restrictions when no one is around (Low & Zalizan, 2022). This could lead to optimism bias, where Kahneman explains that our impulsive mind makes decisions based on past experiences. For example, if those who flout the restrictions are not punished, they may continue to flout it since they are optimistic they will not get caught. This is dangerous to Singapore’s battle against COVID-19 as there could be surges in daily infection cases, increasing the burden that the already stretched healthcare sector has to bear.
COVID-19 fatigue on the healthcare sector
The healthcare sector has been working tirelessly to deal with the COVID-19 pandemic and there are fears that a large number of healthcare workers are suffering from COVID-19 fatigue. They are being overworked, which has led to physical and mental exhaustion. Many of them have not been able to clear their accumulated leave due to the lack of manpower, contributing to burnout. This has resulted in a rise in resignation rates, as around 1,500 workers resigned in the first half of 2021, compared to 2,000 annually pre-pandemic (Tan, 2021). In addition, those suffering from exhaustion may be afraid to seek help over concerns that it will affect their licence to practice (Nanda, 2021). This is worrying, as exhaustion and fatigue left untreated could affect an individual’s mental health, which would compromise their productivity and performance at work. In a survey conducted by National University Health System (NUHS) researchers, they found that 75% of the surveyed healthcare workers showed signs of exhaustion and burnout (Nanda, 2021). There has been a rise in the number of abuse cases against public healthcare workers as well, as paranoia over them being contaminated with the COVID-19 virus spilled over (Ong, 2022). This is worrying for Singapore, as the healthcare sector forms the backbone of its fight against the pandemic. More importantly, the mental health of workers who put themselves on the front-line is at risk. The Ministry of Healthcare could adopt a similar program to Australia’s “drs4drs”, where they offer free and confidential telehealth service specifically for healthcare workers struggling with mental health. This would encourage workers to seek help without having to feel insecure over losing their licence to practice.
Singapore’s next step in its battle with COVID-19
The government recently announced the streamlining and easing of restrictions on the 16th of February. For example, while mask wearing remains mandatory, there is no requirement to maintain safe distance between individuals in mask-on settings and households will be allowed to have 5 visitors at any given time, an adjustment from the current 5 unique visitors per day. Also, sports can be played by up to 30 fully vaccinated people at approved facilities. The date for the easing of measures has been postponed due to the recent peak in omicron cases, but this has been viewed as a step forward for Singapore and Finance Minister Lawrence Wong, who is also the co-chair of the COVID-19 task force, is quietly confident the country can continue to loosen restrictions even further after the omicron wave subsides (Bala, 2022). This could help ease COVID-19 fatigue, as there is some light beginning to shine at the end of the tunnel.
Overall, the general public’s growing frustrations and flouting of pandemic restrictions coupled with rising resignation rates amongst healthcare workers is dangerous to Singapore’s battle against the pandemic. Even though the government has taken steps to provide residents with support during the pandemic, such as GST vouchers and payouts, more could be done to ease COVID-19 fatigue, especially for those working in the healthcare sector. If steps are not taken, Singapore could face a breakdown in its healthcare system, similar to the Philippines, where workers protested against the government’s neglect and lack of benefits towards them as they struggle to deal with the pandemic (Portugal, 2021). As for the general public, more reassurance and clarity on Singapore’s path to making COVID-19 an endemic could help ease the urges that the fatigued have to flout the rules. With that being said, it is important that the government continue to come down strongly on those who flout the rules, as it will prevent optimism bias and the obedient from feeling a sense of injustice.
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