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Youths worldwide deal with pandemic fatigue

April 4, 2021

Young people in Brazil, South Africa, India and Germany talk about how they cope with social isolation and pandemic fatigue.

two girls doing the elbow bump
Young people around the world have been living without much social contact for a yearImage: Westend61/Imago Images

"I saw in the news that a 16-year-old boy, my brother's age, died of COVID. You don't think it's going to happen to you or anyone in your family, but it does," said Carol, a young lawyer from the city of Pelotas in Brazil.  

Only a few days earlier, her friend's grandfather had died from COVID-19. He had just attended a birthday with over 100 people. 

Carol is in a constant state of worry. She is alarmed at the rising death rate and feels the grief of all the bereaved.  

Carolina C
Carol says she has found consolation in reading fictionImage: Privat

Brazil is experiencing record numbers of infections. And with over 300,000 reported deaths, Brazil's curve shows no sign of flattening.

Carol's hometown was under a lockdown imposed when there was a dramatic surge in cases. For weeks, businesses and all outside activity were suspended.  

But many people ignored the restrictions, moving around the city, not wearing masks. That made Carol very anxious. Because she lives with her family, including a grandmother, she had to be cautious. Last year, she chose one friend to be the only person she would meet up with for the months ahead.

Carol had been studying for Brazil's annual exam for public defenders. But then that was canceled. "I don't want to sound selfish," she said. "I know people are struggling way more than I do and they can't get work because of the pandemic, but it really is frustrating." 

Studying is a lonely process, Carol said: "If you take it (the pandemic) seriously, then you're home all day, all alone, and only meeting people who live in your house. It is very difficult. But if you don't take it seriously, nothing will change," she adds. 

Carol has also watched on social media as people across Brazil have thrown caution to the wind and partied on beaches. She blames President Jair Bolsonaro for not taking the pandemic seriously and speaking out against protective measures.

The uncertainty is daunting, Carol said.  

But she has found relief in fiction. "Last year I read more than 50 books," Carol said. "I'd never done that before. I enjoy it because it's a way to transport yourself to another reality. It may sound foolish, but it really helped me."  

South Africa: 'Much longer than we anticipated or budgeted for'   

In Johannesburg South Africa, 28-year-old Lindani also made books his constant companions.  

"There was nowhere to go, so I just kept with the books," Lindani said. "Reading a lot and playing PlayStation was my coping mechanism." 

Lindani Nkomo
Lindani would like to see the South African government set up a helplineImage: Privat

When the pandemic first hit the country, Lindani and his friends thought "it's just one of those pandemics that comes and goes." South Africa has a history of battling AIDS, smallpox and other diseases.   

So, when the first lockdown was implemented in March 2020, many people were not prepared, Lindani said. And within a few months, people realized this is "much bigger than we anticipated and lasting much longer than we budgeted for." 

Lindani shares an apartment with his brother, who works at a small print shop. They manage to get by on his small income. "We are lucky we had money to survive, we didn't have to go to bed hungry or go to our relatives, and that gives us hope and confidence," Lindani said.

He said one of the biggest challenges was the shift to online education. South African students had been protesting against high tuition fees, but the shift to online classes has now made things even more expensive. Students must have a computer and internet connection to be able to participate in classes.  

"I depend on a desktop computer, and it is very difficult because the network goes down when we have regular electricity cuts," Lindani said. "I'm lucky I have a computer: Other people don't even have a cell phone let alone a computer for online learning."

Financial woes, restricted access to education and exhaustion from the lockdown have youths in South Africa on edge. Lindani says they have the feeling of "walls closing in" and are all experiencing what has become known as "pandemic fatigue."

Pandemic fatigue is defined as a range of emotions and experiences that result in a demotivation to follow recommended COVID-19 behaviors, according to the WHO.

"We know we have to be home by 10 p.m., but we find ourselves in the streets even after the curfew, buying alcohol when it was banned, or at a party where there are more people than there should be," Lindani said.

Lindani added: "I think it's normal for people to think 'we have to live, and if we die, well we die.' ... Of course, it is stressful and scary. So, if the government is to impose more restrictions, there's going to be an uproar. People are still recovering from previous lockdowns."  

Lindani's suggestion is that the government set up a toll-free helpline, for people experiencing crisis to connect with professionals, "because you end up having more suicides from young people and even the old who are stuck at home with no jobs and hungry children."

Mohit Singh
Mohit lost his income as a lawyerImage: Privat

India: 'Survival of the fittest'  

The fear of suicides is pertinent in India, too. Data from the country's crime bureau shows over 15 suicides every hour occurred in 2019. And the COVID pandemic is expected to drive those numbers up.

"People lost jobs; lawyers committed suicide," said Mohit, a 29-year-old lawyer. "Some of my friends were forced to sell vegetables. PhD students and professors were forced to do manual labor during the lockdown." He lives with his parents in Meerut, in the populous state of Uttar Pradesh.

Mohit lost his source of income when courts closed during the lockdown. In India, a lawyer is like a daily wager, it's a struggle, Mohit said. Earnings are not permanent.  

The strict nationwide shutdown implemented in March 2020 disrupted the lives of more than 1.3 billion people. Mass unemployment followed. Some warn of a national mental health crisis.

India steps up COVID vaccination drive

Mohit suddenly found himself sitting at home doing nothing. "It got frustrating, the kill-yourself kind of frustrating," he confessed. 

But he was lucky to get a teaching job at the state university in Uttar Pradesh. However, he has not been paid his salary since December 2020, as the state claims to have run out of money and points the finger at the central government.

At the university Mohit observes many students and teachers defying COVID restrictions, not wearing their masks. So he lives in constant fear of getting infected and bringing the virus home to his parents. Therefore Mohit now spends his spare time alone at home.

The uncertainty and a midpandemic career switch took a toll on Mohit's mental health last year. 

"Now I still feel the uncertainty. I don't know where my career will be. I'm just flowing, like a river, I don't know if I'll end up in the Indian Ocean or the Bay of Bengal," he joked. 

Laura Mülenmeier
Laura has suffered mental and physical problems during the pandemicImage: Privat

Germany: 'Lost social empathy'  

A lack of social empathy has become noticeable in Germany, said Laura, a journalism student who lives with a roommate in Berlin. She feels it has become much harder to connect with people or interact at all over the past year.

"It's really hard to talk over Zoom during classes," Laura said. "It's not as lively and misunderstandings can happen easily."

Laura said she "definitely" experienced mental fatigue and described feeling as if "in a trance, somewhere in space." 

But, since Germany introduced COVID-19 self-tests and began offering free weekly rapid tests, Laura has seen new opportunities opening up.

"It's super okay to say, 'I can't do this anymore, I need to see another person,'" Laura said. A test now makes it possible to do that again safely.

Laura's friends deal with the situation differently, she said. Some are super strict and don't see anyone, some see a few people a week, and then there are some who even judge you for doing nothing and staying home, which can be difficult to deal with, she added. 

Laura said she had reached a point where talking about COVID-19 with friends or discussing restrictions makes feel stressed and even sick.

The stress over the past year has had an impact on her overall health: She had a dramatic and unintended weight loss of 10 kilograms (22 pounds) and developed tinnitus and a partial hearing loss. Her doctor told her the number of people with similar symptoms had increased exponentially during the pandemic.

"I had to take medication and go to physiotherapy," Laura said. "But even now I have a sound constantly in my right ear — it hasn't gone away."

Laura sees room for improvement in Germany's fight against the pandemic. "Politicians and scientists do not look at personal feelings: They only think about numbers of infection or numbers of economy," she said. "There needs to be more conversation around mental health." 

Editor's note: If you are suffering from serious emotional strain or suicidal thoughts, do not hesitate to seek professional help. You can find information on where to find such help, no matter where you live in the world, at this website: https://www.befrienders.org/

DW's Warda Imran
Warda Imran Reporter, moderator and community manager