From New Forms of Community to Fatigue: How the Discourse about the COVID-19 Crisis Has Changed

Since the beginning of November 2020, Austria has been in a second "lockdown" due to the COVID-19 pandemic. The restrictions are not (yet) as far-reaching as in spring. But once again, we are all in an extraordinary and stressful situation, in which our everyday life is characterized by various challenges of this crisis – some of which with considerable emotional consequences.

By Katharina Kieslich, Seliem El-Sayed, Christian Haddad, Katharina T. Paul, Mirjam Pot, Barbara Prainsack, Isabella Radhuber, Lukas Schlögl, Wanda Spahl, Elias Weiss

Against this backdrop, researchers at the Centre for the Study of Contemporary Solidarity (CeSCoS) at the University of Vienna initiated a qualitative interview study in April 2020 (“Solidarity in Times of a Pandemic - What do people do and why?” In brief: SolPan). The goal is to understand how people in Austria deal with the restrictions and challenges related to the pandemic. At two time points, in April and October 2020, we carried out in-depth interviews with the same 80 people from Austria. We explored in detail how their everyday lives and their views on pandemic containment measures have changed. We were particularly interested in what people do to protect themselves and others, and what forms of mutual support emerge during a pandemic (and what factors work against the latter). We also aim to learn more about the concerns and hopes that people have for the time after the crisis. What things have changed for them that they would like to hold on to? What are they most worried about post-COVID-19?

Here we present first insights from the study that can inform policymaking, as they help to understand how the pandemic is changing the way we interact and live together as a society, and how government measures to contain the pandemic are perceived. 

Results of the first interview phase (April 2020)

In April, many interviewees told us about a feeling of community spirit, a feeling of ‘togetherness’. They shared experiences with different forms of neighbourhood support and help among friends and acquaintances, such as food shopping for elderly neighbours or playing music together on balconies. The approval of the government's measures to contain the pandemic was very high at the time. This was confirmed by a parallel study conducted by the University of Vienna, the Austrian Corona Panel Project (ACPP). At the same time, it became apparent that some interviewees had doubts about the effectiveness of the measures, or their compliance with the Austrian Constitution: Many expressed concerns regarding the impact of the measures on democratic structures in Austria. It was striking that the same people who expressed these criticisms and concerns nevertheless stated that they would adhere to the measures. Despite their concerns, they deemed it important to contribute to the fight against the pandemic and in particular not to put other people at risk. Overall, we experienced a rather hopeful discourse, a feeling of community and cohesion in these interviews. This feeling was coupled with the hope that the worst would be over by summer. Participants in the SolPan study also expressed their hope that more sustainable ways of living, for example in terms of regional production or a restriction of air traffic, could persist in some form after the pandemic.

Insights from the second interview phase (October 2020)

In the second interview phase, conducted in October, we found that the hopeful tenor had given way to a concerned, even worrisome, mood among most of our interviewees. Even before the start of the lockdown on November 2, participants expressed, among others, the following concerns and views:

1.      When measures to fight the pandemic are poorly explained, or unclear, people find it difficult to accept and implement them. Several participants mentioned that they would like to see more scientific evidence about the effectiveness of measures. For example, for some it is not understandable why they should cover their mouth and nose in the corridors of many public buildings, but then take off their masks when seated, e.g. in a theatre, in a university lecture hall or in an indoors event venue. The interview participants felt that these rules were not in sync with what we know about the transmission routes of the SARS-CoV-2 virus. Some interviewees thought that scientists were also responsible for the lack of clarity: They wondered why there are not more conclusive studies despite the crisis having lasted for a long time.

2.      Respect for other people is an important reason for people to comply with measures to contain the pandemic. We found that even those who are not fully convinced of the effectiveness of all measures adhere to them, primarily out of respect for others. Wearing a mask and maintaining a minimum physical distance to others were regarded as expressions of respect for others. Especially in close proximity to people who are considered to belong to an at-risk group, interviewees reported adhering to the above-mentioned measures. Some interviewees said that for them self-protection is inseparably linked with efforts to protect others – especially when it comes to wearing a mask or keeping a distance to others.

3.      People are tired and exhausted. Many respondents talked about high levels of tiredness and exhaustion. This “pandemic fatigue" manifests in two main forms: First, interest in keeping track of infection numbers is waning - some interviewees even reported an increasing aversion to news ("I can't watch this anymore"). Second, many participants reported that they miss their everyday life as it was before the pandemic. This differs from our spring findings. In spring, some interview participants told us that they enjoy the slower pace of their lives (e.g. having fewer appointments, less travel) due to the lockdown. Now a feeling of exhaustion is setting in: People find it difficult that life is somehow going its course and yet everything is different than before (the potential closure of schools and childcare facilities was mentioned as a particularly worrisome scenario in this respect). 

4.      The polarization of society is increasing: Many interviewees reported that they are concerned about the social impact of the pandemic, and that they feel that society is drifting more and more apart. Many have experienced this in their own personal environments. The different attitudes of people who feel that measures to fight the pandemic are justified, and of others who feel that they are excessive, were often cited as examples of this perceived division in society. The ACPP survey reports similar findings. We also found that people who find truth in some elements of conspiracy theories often felt the need to clearly demarcate themselves from "true" conspiracy theorists. 

5.      The much-touted hope for a vaccine is not shared by many of our study participants: The nuanced views on the potential availability of a vaccine to prevent COVID-19 are among the most remarkable results of the interview study. Many of our interviewees were sceptical about the scenario of a vaccine as solving the COVID-19 pandemic. This applied also to people who were generally in favour of vaccinations. One of the reasons for this scepticism was that vaccinations usually take years to be developed and tested. This seems to lead to a degree of uncertainty regarding the safety of a possible COVID-19 vaccination. Many of our participants indicated that they would prefer to “wait and see” instead of being among the first to be vaccinated. At the same time, a large number of participants mentioned that – assuming that there won’t be enough vaccines for everyone at the beginning - those who are exposed to greater risks should be vaccinated first. One participant put it as follows: "Everybody is waiting for the vaccine, but nobody wants to be vaccinated”.

6.      People are concerned about the social and economic impact of the pandemic: In both time points of our interviews, it became clear that people are deeply worried about the social and economic impact of the pandemic. These observations are consistent with the findings of the ACPP. Interview participants mentioned negative effects on children regarding educational opportunities and the psychosocial burden of this crisis. Similarly, people described their concerns about the isolation and loneliness of elderly, single or vulnerable people. This applies to their own families and circle of friends, but also to society at large. Furthermore, participants worry that the burdens of the pandemic would be borne disproportionately by social groups already disadvantaged due to socio-economic factors. Interviewees also explicitly fear an increase in poverty. With regard to these effects, the prevailing opinion was that there is insufficient social and political discussion about these challenges and how they can be overcome in the future. Nevertheless, participants view some changes in a positive light: The decline in air traffic is one such example. Some do not wish to see a return to the old normality before the pandemic. Hopes for environmental policy changes are mentioned less in the second interview phase compared to the interviews in April. 


Contrary to how it is often presented in political and public discourse, vaccination seems not to be seen as a decisive solution to the COVID-19 crisis by our participants. There is great concern, even among vaccination advocates, about the safety of a COVID-19 vaccine. These concerns cannot be dismissed as mere “vaccine scepticism", rather they need to be addressed in an open and honest dialogue.

The results of the SolPan study reveal that an ambiguous justification of pandemic prevention measures can lead to a lack of understanding or even resistance. Future announcements of further measures should include the reasons and basis for measures more clearly – especially in the context of the rapidly changing state of knowledge. Also, many of our interview participants wish to see more measures to counter the numerous negative social consequences of the pandemic in addition to those protecting health and supporting the economy.

Here, it is important to examine how people’s voices can be heard. Many opportunities for open discussion, e.g. in citizens' forums or through other forms of participatory decision-making, have been limited by the restrictions. Although this is understandable against the need to protect public health, new ways to discuss the social effects of the pandemic and how to counteract negative consequences need to be developed in order to address the perceived increased polarization of society that many interview participants observed.


The SolPan project is an international and comparative longitudinal study. Here, we presented first results from Austria. Other study countries include: Belgium, France, Germany, Ireland, Italy, the Netherlands, Switzerland and the United Kingdom. The inclusion of other countries allows us to draw comparisons across borders. By interviewing the same people repeatedly during the pandemic, the study can also provide insights into how the handling of the pandemic, and the underlying feelings and motivations, have changed over time. Within the SolPan + Latin America project, researchers are also conducting interviews in 15 Latin American countries.