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Mental ailments worsen under Covid-19





THERE is a French word, “ennui”, which is in common use in the English language. It is another word for boredom.

The word boredom first came into print and common use in the year 1766.

Ennui is a social, physiological and psychological condition which, if not properly managed, can degenerate into a silent pandemic.

Such a silent pandemic may be spread from one person to another through the inculcation of wrong ideas or misconceptions. In light of this submission, it is not surprising that the prolonged stay of Covid-19 with us, for about one-and-a-half years, has created a chronic ennui which is suicidal amidst this global pandemic.

Despite concerted efforts being made in enforcing Covid-19 risk mitigation measures, the pandemic may stay with us for an indefinite period. The virus is mutating and striking in different waves and variants. This Covid-19 pandemic has been raging like a world war and, at the time of writing this article, health experts in different parts of the world were predicting a third wave and India is in severe crisis.

Boredom is also striking people across the world. People are very much familiar with the word boredom in common parlance. However, we need to briefly define it for clarity’s sake.

Boredom defined

Several definitions have emerged due to sustained studies of this human behavioural phenomenon. In a study titled “Boredom at Work: A Neglected Concept” by CD Fisher (1993 edition), boredom is generally defined as “unpleasant transient affective state, in which the individual feels a pervasive lack of interest”. However, W.L. Mikulas and SJ Vodanovich, in their study titled “The Essence of Boredom” (1993 edition), defined boredom as “a state of relatively low arousal and dissatisfaction, which is attributed to an inadequately stimulating situation”.

In consideration of these definitions, it has been observed that even though boredom has been mostly defined as a transitional or momentary state (for example, resulting from repetition or from lack of arousal or novelty), some authors suggested that boredom could have a trait-like aspect such as boredom susceptibility and boredom proneness.

Other authors like MCsikszentmihalyi in “Play and Intrinsic Rewards” (1975) and in “Flow: The Psychology of Optimal Performance” (1990), suggested the lack of intrinsic meaning (for example, a lack of meaning in enrolled activity) or a loss of “flow, the loss of a feeling of wholeness and full involvement” leading to feeling of boredom. However, the main consensus is that boredom is a complex, multi-dimensional and comprehensive phenomenon (M Martin et al, in a study titled “The Phenomenon of Boredom”, 2006).

In view of the above definitions and perspectives of boredom, it is needful for individuals, families, corporate leaders, community leaders and national leaders to understand the nature and scope of boredom in order to facilitate problem-solving.

Understanding of boredom is even politically significant as it may result in civil disobedience and rejection of governments, that is, a de facto mass vote of no confidence. In the case of the prevailing Covid-19 pandemic, boredom can result is massive fatalities as non-compliance with regulated health protocols becomes the normal issue. In order to clinch the matter on the boredom problem, it is important to briefly look at what causes boredom in the context of the Covid-19 pandemic.

Covid-19 risk mitigation measures

Much of the boredom emanates from the risk mitigation measures applied by governments across the world. These measures include, inter alia, the following:

  • Lockdowns: hard and relaxed lockdowns;
  • Quarantine: self-quarantine and forced quarantine;
  • Mobility and travel restrictions: both local and international travel
  • Restrictions in social and economic activities (such as retail, schools, social gatherings and sporting activities);
  • Physical distancing measures;
  • Hygienic measures including mask wearing, diagnostic testing, temperature screening, contact tracing;
  • Communication and community engagement measures.

According to a European Commission (EC) Independent Expert Report (November 2020), infections with airborne transmission are spread by exposure to pathogen-transporting droplets and aerosols emitted by infected persons. The majority of aerosols are tiny and can linger in the air for a long time. The EC report adds that according to L Peeples (Face Masks: What the Data Say, 2020) these viruses transported via aerosols may be able to infect people who are further away from the infected person or after that person has left the space.

According to L Setti et al (Airborne transmission route of Covid-19: Why 2 Metres/6 Feet of Interpersonal Distance Could Not Be Enough; International Journal of Environmental Research and Public Health, 2020) there is increasing evidence that SARS-CoV-2 (Shortcut for Severe Respiratory Syndrome Novel Coronavirus) can be transmitted through aerosols. Van Doremalen et al (Aerosol and Surface Stability of SARS-CoV-2 as Compared with SARS-CoV-1; New England Journal of Medicine, 2020) argue that SARS-CoV-2 was also shown to remain viable and infectious in aerosols for hours.

As a consequence, SARS-CoV-2 may spread over longer distances and can linger for longer times, for hours instead of minutes.

In view of the EC report’s findings, it can be safely emphasised that the Covid-19 risk mitigation measures stated above are very necessary. However, considering the gregarious nature of human beings and the fact that some countries like Zimbabwe have not experienced a ravaging and severe pandemic flu like Covid-19, the risk mitigation measures are a cause of much boredom among the newly affected populations. Face masks, for example, are worn frequently in several East Asian countries to prevent the spread of respiratory diseases, starting with the Spanish Flu that occurred in 1918. Contrariwise, the wearing of masks has not been fashionable in countries like Zimbabwe.

Why this boredom?

Hard or strict lockdowns mean the suspension of normal human activity. It is like putting people in forced and restrictive detention for no apparent crime. However, experience with pandemics has shown that such lockdowns can be an unavoidable strategic imperative. The Covid-19 global pandemic has been more alarming than the First and Second World Wars of 1914-1919 and 1939-1945 respectively.

Perhaps the overwhelming impacts of pandemics to people and their economies are due to the levels of unpreparedness to manage such pandemics.

As the drastic and abrupt risk mitigation measures are enforced, they create a sense of life’s emptiness, hence the problem of boredom at national and global levels. Such levels of unpreparedness impact negatively and directly on people’s livelihoods economically, socially and politically, needless to say psychologically as people suffer from mental stress due to unmanageable hardships.

As a result, boredom under such circumstances causes high degrees of non-compliance with health risk mitigation measures. The on-compliance with such measures further exerts a lot of pressure on law enforcement agencies and pandemic task forces.

How to avoid boredom

The European Commission’s Independent Expert Report of November 2020 gives good examples of how best to improve pandemic preparedness and management. The following are examples of good practice in response management, quoted verbatim:

Examples of good practice in response management

1) Prevention and early warning

  • The Coalition for Epidemic Preparedness Innovations (CEPI), has tracked global efforts in Covid-19 vaccine development activity and is advocating strong international cooperation to ensure that vaccines, when developed, will be manufactured in sufficient quantities and that equitable access will be provided to all nations regardless of ability to pay (Pek et al, 2020).

2) Biomedical Countermeasures: vaccines, diagnostics and therapeutics

  • The World Health Organisation’s Research and Development Blueprint, adopted in 2016 to decrease the time for development, assessment and authorisation of medical countermeasures for the world’s most dangerous pathogens;
  • ACT-Accelerator: Covid-19 Global Response (Covax).

3) Public Health risk mitigation measures

  • Massive decentralised testing and tracing programmes for Covid-19: South Korea, Germany, Italy, Taiwan, Japan, Singapore;
  • South Korea’s lessons learnt from MERS and applied to Covid-19;
  • Rapid and timely response to the Hong Kong 2003 SARS outbreaks;
  • EIT Crisis Response Initiative.

4) Social security risk mitigation measures

  • National emergency financial aid schemes, e.g. temporary unemployment support;
  • Civil society organisations of mutual help, e.g. Doctors Without Borders: provision of essential healthcare and sanitation facilities for those in need;
  • Exploitation of digital means to continue education.

5). Communication, tackling misinformation and disinformation, sustaining public trust

  • WHO’s pre-emptive pro-vaccination strategy for epidemics (WHO 2014);
  • WHO’s Network for Information in Epidemics (EPI-WIN).

In addition to all the above five items submitted by the EC Independent Expert Report, it is important to appreciate the initiatives of the administration of the USA’s former president George W Bush (2001-2009).

In May 2006, the Bush administration, through the Homeland Security Council, published a comprehensive document on “National Strategy For Pandemic Influenza Implementation Plan” which may have been ignored by subsequent administrations up to Donald Trump’s administration.

Such strategic blueprints need to be religiously honoured, reviewed and, above all, implemented.


The nature and extent of a disaster or an emergency dictate actions to be taken and rules to be followed regardless of how far resources and human effort may be overstretched. It is thus suicidal to allow boredom to smother the required patience and passion to overcome a life-threatening disaster like the much-dreaded Covid-19 pandemic.


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