Trying to guess when the COVID-19 pandemic will end has felt a bit like trying to follow a bouncing ball.
At first, many Canadians believed the lockdown-like measures enacted in March might only be necessary for a few weeks. Many of us thought that while the United States might not be ready to reopen by Easter – the timeline U.S. President Donald Trump so eagerly laid out – Canadians might be able to resume something close to normal life by then.
When Easter came and went without any significant changes, we started to shift our focus to the arrival of warmer weather. Then summer. Then September.
Easter is now six months in the rear-view mirror, and it’s clear that it will still be a long time before masks, distancing and gathering restrictions are fully erased from the Canadian scene.
The goalposts aren’t only moving in our imaginations, though. Think of the shifting response from governments as they’ve learned more about the extent of the pandemic.
Closing the Canada-U.S. land border seemed extreme and almost unfathomable when it happened in March. Almost a month later, Prime Minister Justin Trudeau was still making headlines by saying the border would remain closed to non-essential traffic for weeks to come.
Now that it’s October and the border is still closed with no end in sight, that seems almost quaint. Trudeau’s own messaging has moved to “we still have a shot at Christmas” – not for opening the border, mind you, just for being with loved ones who don’t have to travel from abroad – and the target dates could certainly move farther and farther back until a COVID-19 vaccine is widely accepted and widely distributed.
THE CASE FOR OPTIMISM BIAS
This isn’t the first time there have been hopes that, after a year of seismic change, the world would be back to normal once Dec. 25 rolls around. In late 1914, it was widely believed in the United Kingdom that the First World War, which had started that July, would be “over by Christmas.” It wasn’t, and two more Christmases went by before the war came to an end in late 1918.
There are other historical precedents, including one that seems very relevant today.
“This happened in the 1918 so-called Spanish Flu pandemic. It was leaders – often political leaders – saying ‘this will be over soon,'” Steven Taylor, a psychiatry professor at the University of British Columbia, told CTVNews.ca via telephone Oct. 7.
“They were frightened of widespread panic. They thought, ‘If you frighten the public, people are going to freak out, there’s going to be rioting, there’s going to be widespread pandemonium.’ The job of many of the health authorities back then was to keep people calm.”
It’s a new century and a new pandemic, but the basic idea stands, Taylor said – even when it’s not politicians claiming the worst will soon be over, but us convincing ourselves that’s the case.
He describes it as a form of optimism bias. It’s the same principle that makes most of us believe we are smarter, more successful, kinder or otherwise superior to others. In this case, though, it’s a defence mechanism we’ve created to deal with our fears of death and other calamities.
“Most people tend to have this bias to be overly optimistic about how things will turn out,” he said.
Although being “wrong” about what lies ahead may seem like a bad thing, Taylor sees it as a way of protecting ourselves. Someone who was told in the spring that the pandemic would still be a problem in the fall might be more likely to fall into depression, he said, while moving toward that conclusion in smaller increments might make it seem more manageable.
Of course, there is such a thing as too much of a good thing – and that applies here as well.
“It’s a healthy behaviour, unless it’s gone to an extreme,” he said.
“Some people think this whole COVID thing is exaggerated, they see themselves as being exceptionally healthy, they think if they got infected it would be no big deal – that kind of excessive optimism bias can lead to recklessness and disregard.”
That can include people opting not to get vaccines, Taylor said, because they believe that they are less likely to get infected than the average person, or less likely to suffer severe consequences if they do get infected.
A WARNING FOR GOVERNMENTS
Taking an optimistic view of when the pandemic will end may be good for us, but it can create a problem for governments, as research conducted earlier in the pandemic shows.
A representative sample of Italians was asked in mid-March when they thought the country’s lockdown measures would be relaxed. Fewer than five per cent of respondents believed that things could start to get back to normal by April 3 – the official end date of the lockdown at the time. More than 40 per cent thought the measures would remain in place for a few more weeks, about 20 per cent thought they would last a few more months, and approximately 35 per cent were prepared for the measures to remain in place indefinitely.
The Italian government kept extending its emergency measures, and follow-up surveys over the following few weeks showed strengthening beliefs that each new end date would be the actual end date, along with significantly weakening beliefs that the measures could possibly last for more than a few weeks.
“Our interpretation there is that expectations matter, and … by changing dates, you sort of create discrepancies between what people expect and the way they plan their life and their behaviour, and what is actually supposed to happen,” Nicola Lacetera, a management professor at the University of Toronto and one of the researchers who conducted the study, told CTVNews.ca via telephone on Oct. 8.
But that wasn’t all. Lacetera and his colleagues also asked their Italian subjects what effect lockdown extensions of various lengths would have on their willingness to follow the rules.
A clear trend emerged. Respondents consistently said they would be less likely to comply with lockdowns and similar measures in circumstances where they continued for longer than expected. By late April, roughly 30 per cent of those surveyed reported that they would loosen up their own behaviours if the lockdown lasted beyond the expected end date.
Lacetera describes this as the “negative surprise” effect. If a clear end date for a lockdown is communicated, and then changes, he says, citizens “are significantly less likely to be willing to comply … with the measures.”
There was also evidence of “pandemic fatigue,” as the share of respondents who said they would not fully follow lockdown measures grew sharply by the time of the final survey. More than 20 per cent of respondents in late April said they would relax their compliance even if the lockdown didn’t last as long as they believed it would.
WHAT HAVE WE LEARNED?
As Lacetera sees it, the findings from Italy offer several lessons to pandemic-era governments around the world: Setting lockdown end dates can create a sense of closure that may disappear if the date is extended, and citizens are less likely to comply with emergency measures if they believe they are being given a moving target.
At the same time, not providing end dates makes it more difficult for citizens to activate their optimism bias, potentially causing other psychological problems.
“It’s a tension there. You can’t go on and on forever by saying ‘We don’t know how long it’s going to last’ because people get exhausted and they need some clarity,” Lacetera said.
He recommends that anyone looking to understand how long lockdown-like measures will last not get “fixated” on any one date, because the spread of COVID-19 and our knowledge of the virus that causes it are both still rapidly evolving.
“Things might change drastically, because there is a lot of uncertainty. Be open to change, because the situation is fluid,” he said.
That dovetails with Taylor’s advice. Noting the many reports of increased depression among Canadians during the pandemic, he says it’s important for everyone to regularly take stock of their mental health – regardless of their level of optimism bias and willingness to follow public health measures.
“Going forward into the winter months, people need to do a little bit of a mental health check-in every now and then, to check up on their mood and how they’re going,” he said.