Germany's Lockdown 2.0: When fear gives way to monotony, and how to deal with it

The second lockdown is experienced psychologically differently than its "first run". Sebastian Buggert, (Managing Director, rheingold Institute, Germany) explains what has changed in the public's perception.

The second lockdown in Germany is experienced psychologically differently than its "predecessor" - this is the result of a study by the Cologne-based rheingold Institute. Our partners from interacted with Sebastian Buggert, managing director and psychologist at the institute, who explained what has changed in the public's perception and why individual daily routines are an important tool against lockdown restlessness.

esanum: Mr. Buggert, according to a recent psychology study by the rheingold Institute, the feeling of a lack of accomplishment and dwindling anxiety undermine corona measures. Why are many people less afraid in the current situation than they were during the first lockdown?

Buggert: During the first lockdown, the virus was new to all of us; we knew very little about it. In this respect, the threat was diffuse and the fear felt very great accordingly. We didn't know exactly what was coming, how it would affect us, how quickly it would spread, how strong the effects of infection would be, or how the mortality rate would develop. We had the horror scenarios from neighbouring countries right in front of our eyes, so we were all in the same boat. This experience welded us together. We basically pulled the emergency brake and went into lockdown. Everyone was behind it, because no one knew exactly what was coming. Then, of course, every single person got very involved with the COVID-19 topic, especially in the first phase. All the news broadcasts, every focal point, and sometimes the press conferences were followed by a majority of the population. People did their own research to be better prepared and to know what they were up against. Then we basically learned how the measures had worked and we were rewarded by an easing of restrictions during the summer. That was the situation in the first lockdown.

In the second lockdown, we have almost a year behind us. Everybody has come up with their own COVID-19 routine, informed themselves and more or less formed their own guiding opinions. Each individual is more mature and in everyday life there are discussions with neighbours or friends about the measures, sometimes even arguments. As a result, everyone has developed their own COVID-19 attitude about how and to what extent the measures are followed. Compliance is very high overall, but everyone also makes small exceptions for themselves. That adds up and then we end up with overall relaxed compliance compared to the first lockdown.

esanum: Does the prospect of vaccination against COVID-19 and possible therapy options, such as the antibody therapy presented by German Health Minister Jens Spahn, lead to more reckless behaviour in the population?

Buggert: We did not perceive that in our study. Vaccination is, of course, very present in people's minds and is currently the focus of the population’s hope that we will be much better off in the 2021 summer or at the end of the year, and thus be able to return step by step to a new normality. I don't think that this makes people think that COVID-19 is curable and that they don't need to be so disciplined anymore as a result. I wouldn't call people undisciplined at all, but everyone has their own discipline. It may be a little looser in some cases than it was in the first lockdown. I don't think that people are basically lax, but they have instead matured regarding the situation compared to the first lockdown.

esanum: From a psychological point of view, is the current COVID-19 policy of making gradual lockdown decisions suitable for getting the population to carry the regulations for as long as possible, or would a hard lockdown have been better?

Buggert: Of course, one is always wiser in retrospect. In our current study, with many in-depth interviews, some group discussions and continuous surveys, we were able to determine that people are now a bit demoralised, because after a longer lockdown period, the numbers still haven't developed well enough to foresee possible relaxations in the coming weeks. We had rapid progress in the first lockdown, and the spring and summer came quickly, which also led to an improvement in the situation. At that time, people felt encouraged and were also rewarded for the effort.

Now you don't feel rewarded and that leads to increased frustration. As a result, people also say, "If only we'd done this sooner!" or "Why couldn't we have foreseen this development?" However, I don't know if there would have been a willingness for a tougher lockdown back in October or November 2020.

In the current context, people already understand that you have a special situation in England, for example, because of the viral mutation. That does scare people, so there is more of a willingness to pull themselves together again. However, the desire is very, very strong that compliance will bring about a breakthrough.

esanum:  Is there any particular acceptance to COVID-19 and the Corona measures in certain groups of the population, or are we all equally tense?

Buggert: We have roughly identified three different types in our research: One group is those who are very cautious, in part because they have had COVID-19 cases in the immediate environment - family, for example - are part of the risk group themselves, or have relatives or friends from the risk group. People in this group are very concerned, enormously cautious and, accordingly, sometimes want even stricter measures.

Then there are many - that is the majority - whom we have called the "rule-followers." These people go along with it because they understand that it's necessary. But it's still an imposition, of course. In this group, for example, you have many young people who intellectually understand that following the rules is also required of them, but are also depressed by how many deprivations have to be accepted.

Then we have those people who are rather carefree and do not believe that the situation is so serious. This group is correspondingly more lax in complying with the rules.

Our study also provided a picture of what kind of state we are in now, more or less. In retrospect, the first lockdown is described as a collective challenge that also had something positive in the sense that society as a whole was strongly welded together. Accordingly, people sometimes spoke of the feeling of a "class trip"; in some cases, they were ordered to simply do nothing. In the beginning, this was also perceived as an opportunity to shift down a gear to a calmer pace of life.

The second lockdown, on the other hand, has more of a grey monotony. You can't do anything, the weather is bad and a lot of what you do seems rather the same and uneventful. That's what you have to deal with at the moment, and it's a challenge for everyone. In a way, this is "homeschooling for everyone." One becomes sensitive or irritable and tends to childish tendencies or self-centred behaviour. At the same time, one risks drifting into a laissez-faire mode. We have to defend our adult form, so to speak, not only parents to their children, but also everyone to themselves. That's where it's important to maintain a daily structure for yourself and focus on what's important. But it is underestimated what an effort this requires and how much strength it takes to keep one's head up, to remain confident and not to let oneself be dragged down by this dreariness.

esanum: How can physicians or medical professionals - especially people in contact with COVID-19 intensive care patients - take care of their own psychological well-being?

Buggert: That's a difficult question. I myself have not spoken to this target group at all, but I would say that it is also important here - as far as possible - to keep in touch with one's own needs and to have conversations about them. I can't imagine anything else for this target group. From the outside, however, I can hardly say what I would specifically advise these people to do, since I probably cannot properly assess their current reality at all, since incredible things have to be done here. I admire enormously what a feat of strength this group of society has already and is managing over a long period of time.

I think it's also important here to talk to people from your own work environment about how best to deal with the current situation. After all, if you talk to people who haven't worked in the ICU or don't see the effects of the pandemic on a regular basis, they can hardly imagine it. So I think it's important to be able to talk to people who can share the experience of what has been going on.