Herd immunity vs herd mentality: pandemic fatigue and the toll on society

One of the unexpected side effects of the novel coronavirus – and it affects almost everyone – is that it has broadened our knowledge while narrowing our minds.

Over the last few months – which have felt like about a decade – we’ve turned into amateur epidemiologists, learning new terms and concepts. Medically-wise, it’s probably about as valuable as believing you’re a lawyer because you’ve watched a lot of Law & Order. 

Each on their own – this is the age of social isolation after all – now and again panics that the pandemic will never end and simple pleasures we once took for granted – a hug, a meal with friends, large family celebrations – will remain a thing of the past. 

We also reach out toward the glimmer of hope, whenever it appears on the horizon: news of a promising treatment; a possible vaccine; reports that Vitamin D can help mitigate the risks.

Sadly, the further we progress in our knowledge of the virus, the further apart we grow.

Among the new terms that have popped up lately is “pandemic fatigue.” This is not the debilitating tiredness suffered by many who have been hit with the virus itself, it refers to the overwhelming exhaustion from the measures taken to prevent its spread. 

Experts warn that pandemic fatigue means people are getting restless and reckless – less likely to abide by the regulations (which in Israel change with alarming speed) and are less willing to trust the political and medical establishments.

Corona is a virus with an attitude and the public is beginning to respond in kind.

If the first closure was an imposition that we could somehow live with – or needed in order to live – the second closure is much harder. We’ve reached our mental capacity to deal with the disease and the uncertainty, insecurity and tension that goes with it.

Different countries are responding in different ways and this, too, is being analyzed again and again – as things are when the public has a lot of spare time on its hands.

Once upon a time, the words “Swedish model” conjured up a politically-incorrect image of a leggy, Scandinavian blonde. Now, the term triggers discussions about the cost of trying to create herd immunity (some 6,000 Swedes died out of a population of 10 million) while keeping the economy running. 

The German model is researched by amateur economists and their epidemiologist counterparts alike: The value of testing and tracing and the best exit strategy from lockdown. 

At least Taiwan is finally getting the global attention and admiration it deserves: The Republic of China remains a flourishing democracy and an economic powerhouse and has witnessed the deaths of just seven people due to coronavirus (out of a population of close to 24 million).

Israelis, in general, have responded as Israelis do, by being creative. We are a nation that takes rules as guidelines and a starting point for negotiations rather than as something mandatory and binding.

Part of the problem is that we don’t really understand the rules. Why are we stuck indoors when it seems healthier to go outside – wearing masks and maintaining a safe distance, of course – and get some of that free Vitamin D?

Yisrablof, the peculiarly Israeli style of bluffing, or pretense, is flourishing. Israelis are taking the interpretation of the law into their own hands. What can be more Israeli than falafel stalls? For some reason, restaurants and stalls are allowed only to do deliveries, but not takeaways. Hence, falafel stall owners across the country have come up with the idea of setting up a stand a few meters from the kitchen. 

Customers whatsapp their orders – which are delivered minutes later to where they are waiting in surprisingly orderly lines. “Don’t worry, I’ll whatsapp myself,” a falafel guy cheerfully told me last week. He was wearing a mask and gloves. I went along with the pretense. Surviving the economic crisis is already hard enough.

An even bigger bluff is taking place in the local sporting scene: Officially permitted to practice and play only if participating in a European tournament, several Israeli basketball teams registered with the Balkan League and are now holding games among themselves close to home – a net profit as far as they’re concerned. Beitar Jerusalem soccer club realized its goal equally inventively, registering for a six-a-side foreign tournament.

BUT THE pandemic is taking a huge toll on society.

Perhaps it has caused us to collectively go through a grieving process. We mourn not only loved ones who have been lost to the virus, but also the lives we had. I suspect that many who managed to move on from the denial phase of bereavement are now stuck in the anger phase.

And here it is exploding on the streets and social media. From the outset of the coronavirus in Israel in March, there has been an open battle between the demonstrators and the prayer-goers. And we’re not talking about six people per side, but thousands.

With synagogues closed, religious Jews are praying in street minyans, or from balconies and in parks. The numbers have been limited – sometimes to only the minimal prayer quorum of 10. Demonstrators, on the other hand, were free to gather in tens of thousands – free to protest their perceived lack of freedom; free to protest the alleged crimes of the prime minister and demand his removal without trial; free to demonstrate against the collapse of the economy and the loss of jobs. 

The right to protest is sacred in a democracy. But the right to pray can be no less respected in the Jewish state. The demonstrators point to ultra-Orthodox weddings and gatherings and blame them for the spread of the disease in a trope that frequently crosses the red line into a blood libel. They point out the high rate of infection in the haredi communities – ignoring the possibilities of other factors: large families stuck in small apartments, for example.

Those watching the demonstrators wonder why they consider themselves immune to the virus. Is self-righteousness a more effective protection than prayer? The mass entourage of mourners at the funeral of a haredi religious leader is clearly a danger, but no more than mass protests in a pandemic. 

The protests are popular in part, I suspect, because with all other places of entertainment closed, this is the place to be. And most Israeli media encourage it. Live broadcasts from the protests on all the main channels ensure that they have ratings and status. 

But here, the herd mentality kicks in: “Where are you?” my left-leaning friends ask each other as they gather on traffic circles, bridges and at junctions – abiding by the rule of staying to within 1,000 meters of home.

“Everyone supports us,” they assure themselves on social media, while at the same time expressing shock at being “verbally abused.” Clearly, not everyone in the country is with the protesters. Some citizens believe that democracy means – apart from the right to demonstrate – the need to change governments via elections, and to determine criminal status in a court of law, not a kangaroo court.

Social media fosters the divide. People exist in echo chambers, hearing only the views of their friends who express the same opinions – or risk being unliked, unfollowed, unfriended. A social media death.

I refuse to follow either side or any leader blindly. I’d rather remain outside the herd mentality than give up my basic freedom to make up my own mind and change my opinion when circumstances change. 

I urge everyone, the prayer-goers and the protesters, people of all political and religious persuasions, to realize we’re all in the same boat. No one has the right to drill a hole in it. “Who are you kidding?” can too easily turn into “Who are you killing?”

liat@jpost.com



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