Quarantine fatigue has well and truly set in – and that could spell trouble

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Arwa Mahdawi

Arwa Mahdawi

In some US states, bars are already packed again and you can even get your nails done. Will lockdown boredom lead to a dreaded second wave?

Wed 20 May 2020 07.00 BST

Coronavirus is officially cancelled: the US is bored of it, so it is over. That is what it feels like, anyway. In Wisconsin, bars are packed; Texas has reopened restaurants; and Mississippi and Louisiana are reopening their casinos. People in Georgia can get their nails done. In New York, where I live, strict lockdown restrictions are still in place, but people are growing lax. The weather was beautiful over the weekend and the streets were full of people drinking takeout cocktails with friends. Beaches were crowded.

Quarantine fatigue has set in. That is not just my observation: researchers at the University of Maryland tracked phone location data and found that, over the past few weeks, people have started going out more. While all the polls say that Americans support stay-at-home orders, their actions tell another story. Unfortunately, we have a good idea how this story ends: during the 1918 flu pandemic, many areas saw a deadly second wave of infections. Looking at the current scramble to return to normality, it seems highly possible that history will repeat itself.

It is a privilege to feel bored. Those of us lucky enough to be able to work from home owe it to the workers who are risking their lives every day to suck it up and stay put. Nevertheless, I don’t think there is anything to be gained in shaming those going out. We can’t expect people to stay home for ever, particularly those of us who live in small inner-city apartments with no gardens. As the US magazine the Atlantic recently noted, “instead of an all-or-nothing approach to risk prevention”, we need clear guidelines on how to live safely in a pandemic. Instead of the UK’s vague messaging about “staying alert” (which is still better than the US’s lack of any federal governmental messaging), we need clear direction about what constitutes a high-risk activity and what constitutes a low-risk activity. This is a marathon, not a sprint; if we are going to get through it, we need a more nuanced, more manageable approach to lockdown.

• Arwa Mahdawi is a Guardian columnist.