Ukrainians Are Getting Tired of Hiding From Russian Bombs

Air raid alerts have prevented thousands of Ukrainian deaths during the war with Russia, but just six months into the conflict, people started to pay less attention to the warnings as fatigue from the constant bombings set in, according to a recent study.

A war that some believed would be over within a matter of weeks has continued for more than a year and the conflict shows little sign of being resolved. Ukraine used a mix of traditional air raid sirens and a mobile app to urge civilians to seek shelter in the early days of the war, but as it drags on, daily bombings—and the alerts—have become part of everyday life.

Approximately 8,895 civilians have been killed by Russian hands between February 24, 2022, and May 21, 2023, according to the Office of the United Nations High Commissioner for Human Rights (OHCHR), and another 15,117 civilians were reported to have been injured. OHCHR believes that the actual figures are "considerably higher" due to delayed reports and those not yet corroborated.

Deaths at the start of the war would have been up to 45 percent higher without the air raid alerts, according to a recent study, in which researchers from the University of Chicago, University of Michigan and Ipsos used geolocation pings tied to mobile devices to determine the effectiveness Ukraine's air raid alert system.

Ukrainians Are Getting Tired of Hiding
A girl sits with her dog and cat in the Dorohozhychi subway station, which had been turned into a bomb shelter, on March 2, 2022 in Kyiv. A new study found that the country's air raid alerts saved a considerable number of civilians in the war's infancy, but more people stopped following alerts over time. Chris McGrath/Getty

While Ukrainians rigorously sought shelter at the start of the war, the researchers determined that some people have started to tune out the alerts as they've become more frequent.

"First, you buy in, and then over time, the responsiveness attenuates," Austin Wright, one of the researchers, told Newsweek. "This idea of there being decay is not unique to Ukraine contexts or this specific type of event."

Wright related the findings about Ukraine to the COVID-19 pandemic in the United States. The majority of citizens who initially locked down adhered to government orders, but the adherence decreased as more time passed.

The researchers ultimately concluded that while governmental interventions, like alert systems, alleviate casualties typically in the infancy of wars, enthusiasm or adherence to follow said alerts dramatically decreases as a byproduct of the normalization of war—estimating that on top of the thousands of lives likely saved in the war's first couple months, another 8 to 15 percent of casualties could have been avoided if people followed alerts.

At the start of the war, Ukrainians knew where their nearest shelter was and their best strategy. Wright noted that people had a bag packed and were prepared to shelter. The researchers found that Ukrainians moved to a "two-wall rule" later in the war. They'd move to an interior structure but wouldn't go to a shelter.

"And then eventually, people will just completely ignore the alerts. Some subsets of people will completely ignore the alerts and just continue going back to life as normal, pre-war in terms of their behavior," Wright said.

The alerts were followed most during the months of March and April in 2022, but by May the adherence had already decreased and continued through June. Between July and September, air raid fatigue had strongly set in.

David Van Dijcke, a Ph.D. student in economics, told Newsweek that the team analyzed multiple hypotheses for why and when fatigue set in. They found that Ukrainians are getting "cognitively, emotionally [and] physically exhausted."

"That's also the most concerning hypothesis because the other ones are sort of fashionable responses, where it makes sense to shelter less because there's less danger [or] because you have a good alternative to sheltering," Dijcke said. "The fatigue explanation is a concerning one because we might see avoidable casualties...and extra casualties."

Fedor Sandor, a Ukrainian professor who has fought with the Ukrainian military since the start of the war, compared the formed habit of response to alerts to new vaccines combating a virus.

"Through notifications, the state gives you the opportunity to choose," he told Newsweek. "If you want to save your life from the Russians, go into hiding or the choice is yours. It is somewhat reminiscent of the period when the German Nazis destroyed British cities."

A sharp decrease in Russian precision strikes complemented by a strong Ukrainian army has led to mental relaxation across Ukraine, he added, acknowledging the potential negative consequences.

Both Wright and Dijcke could not empirically say whether alert fatigue has continued to decrease since September 2022. But as their data showed a downward trajectory, they said it was reasonable to assume the fatigue factor is much worse now.

"If the trend were to continue, then yes, I think what you would see is just continued diminishing responsiveness," Wright said. "And that's unfortunate because what we find is that movement after these notifications is in fact correlated with a reduction in casualties. And the size of the effect is quite pronounced. And so overall, the program—even in the presence of attenuation like fatigue—it's still quite effective."

He said there's a social tradeoff of whether living in a near-constant state of emergency has its own negative psychological effects—as well as the fact that unintended consequences are a reality during war.

"I don't want that to be overshadowed. It works," Wright said of the alerts. "The question is, could it have worked better? It was already, at least by our measures, incredibly successful. But if those trends were to continue, then then you would, I think, continue to see casualties that could have been avoided."

The group is looking into publishing additional research that includes experimental work regarding the alerts and how to "cut through" fatigue to enhance the credibility of the system and the public's attentiveness to it.

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