Why we’ve been desensitised to Covid-19, and why that’s not a bad thing

Daniel Durand

During the nine o’clock news, on Thursday March 5th 2020, my mam sent me a text: “7 more cases.”

At the time, this was the most cases the country had seen. Community transmissions had started spreading in other countries, and Covid-19 was a week away from being declared a pandemic.

Fear and anxiety were rampant. Uncertainty had people uneasy at a time when we still knew very little about this new virus that was set to alter our lives.

With a lot to learn, any new update, discovery or minute development was splashed on every headline and social timeline with either a yellow-and-black insignia or a photo of a microscopic virus.

Then, as March rolled on, we were quick to hop into full lockdown at 204 cases, and we were quick to comply in the interest of protecting the vulnerable. In April 2020, the Central Statistics Office found the personal compliance level with government restrictions to be 80.6% among respondents.

But now, in January 2022, as we’re breaking twenty thousand cases per day and the limits on our testing facilities are being breached, it seems that everyone knows someone who’s caught it, if not themselves- yet restrictions are nowhere near as tight as they were in March 2020.

With less haste to hatch down exhibited by the government this time around, it is clear that attitudes toward the virus have shifted.

The government’s approach to tackling the virus changed from ‘Flattening the Curve’ in March 2020 to ‘Living with Covid’ that summer. In doing so, the message of Covid’s severity had changed from one of urgency, to one of a more passive nature.

Now, if you have Covid, the only thing stopping you from spreading it is your conscience.

With these higher risk facilities still remaining relatively unrestricted, more members of the public will catch and spread the virus than they would if they were shut down.

Additionally, public engagement with Covid awareness and prevention measures has dwindled.

The HSE Covid-19 contact tracing app, which encourages the public to check in and record if they’re experiencing symptoms of the virus, launched back in July 2020, and saw up to a million downloads (~25% of the population) in its first week live.

Throughout the summer-autumn of 2020, hundreds of thousands of citizens registered their symptoms each day, giving a rough estimation of the virus’ presence in different parts of Ireland.

On December 31st 2021, the number of users that checked in was 1,042 (.01% of total downloads.), rendering the app’s location estimation and tracing feature inaccurate and unreliable.

However, this has increased dramatically these past two weeks as the effects of Omicron become widespread, with numbers ranging from 100,000 on January 11th, to 30,000 on January 14th.

Other signs of a lack of public engagement can be noticed on more anecdotal levels: lesser adherence to indoor one-way systems, lesser usage of hand sanitiser, and more people noticeable in higher quantities than in 2020.

With this in mind, it could be said that we’ve become desensitised to Covid-19 and its associated crises since its initial spread in 2020. We are no longer as cautious, as quick to close everything, and as engaged with the personal safety and security protocols as we once were.

It is easy to assume this to be a bad thing. A lack of anxiety around the virus could lead to complacency toward the security of the wellbeing of you and those around you- but that is not necessaitly true.

Other factors contributing to our desensitisation stem from a gained confidence in ourselves. We have studied the virus to a greater extent and have a more thorough understanding of it and how it affects our biology.

Our vaccination efforts have also contributed to our sense of security. You can be desensitised without being complacent or ignorant. Desensitisation is a natural reaction to something initially shocking and unconventional, particularly in this digital-media-centric landscape. 

It is a process that helps the mind cope using time and exposure. Cognitive behavioural therapists have used the process of desensitisation to treat afflictions such as phobias.

While its alleviating qualities can be challenged in some instances such as violence and pornography, desensitisation is particuarly effective in helping us navigate through the Covid world.

Covid-19 may be around for another while still, and as such we have a choice: to live in fear, or to not. We can still live normal lives free of Covid fear, while keeping aware of our actions.

Remain conscious of case numbers, be careful around the vulnerable, comply with restrictions and take antigen tests regularly. In doing so, we can push on, prevail and be stronger for it. 

However, it is not wrong to feel fear. It still remains a normal and justified reaction toward most extreme and shocking developments. This piece is just to serve as a reminder that it is possible to live your life and do most of what you’d usually do without the unprecedented fear we experienced together back in March 2020.

Daniel Durand

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