The Five Stages of the Coronavirus Gray Rhino


We’ve been seeing a lot of analysis of where the coronavirus could take us, along with some analysis of what different countries are doing to combat it. Response analysis is important because it has a huge impact on the eventual outcome.

It’s worth taking more time to think about how each of us is responding along with our organizations and communities, whether those responses are appropriate and adequate, and if not how we can change them for the better.

In my book, THE GRAY RHINO, I developed a five-stage framework for analyzing responses to obvious “gray rhino” risks that are more likely to get downplayed, neglected, or outright ignored than any of us would like to admit. Each stage involves different obstacles and strategies for overcoming those obstacles.

The goal is to get from the first stage, denial, through the intermediate stages –muddling, diagnosing, and panic—and embrace full-fledged action as soon as possible to avoid disaster.

I’ve used this framework with businesses and trade organizations to help develop actionable strategies for recognizing and acting on obvious risks that otherwise get short shrift: digital disruption, re-skilling, industry trends, climate change, and even career and personal leadership challenges. The process is simple: assess what stage you, your organization, and other key stakeholders are at, why, and what it takes to move yourself and others to effective action.

What does the gray rhino framework look like when it comes to the coronavirus?

Alas, we’re still seeing too many people in Denial. The first stage, in homage to Elisabeth Kübler-Ross. You’ve met them –the ones who insist on filling the bars and restaurants that are still open. You’ve seen them on Fox News. They say, “It’s just the flu.” Weeks and weeks after the danger was announced, they continue to cry out: “Black swan! Black swan! Nobody saw this coming!” (Read: and still don’t see what’s ahead of us.)

What gets people out of denial?

Sometimes it’s a matter of time, to allow people to gradually let a reality sink in; they will deal with it when they are ready. Peer pressure makes a difference: the more we see others taking a risk seriously, particularly those we like and relate to, the more likely any of us is to do so as well.

Personal, emotionally salient connections are a big help. Tom Hanks’ announcement that he was suffering from the virus helped many people relate; movie stars and other public figures can make a big impression even though we don’t “know” them personally.

When none of the rest works, government action does the trick: say, ordering bars, restaurants, and cafes to stop offering in-house dining.

Muddling. Recognizing the problem but coming up with reasons not to do anything. “Only old people are really at risk.” “It’s just a problem in [insert your geographical location of choice].” “Most cases are mild.” “Herd immunity.”

Often people muddle because they don’t have enough information. That’s why clear communications strategies are important.

Sometimes people ignore a problem because they don’t feel they have the resources to manage it, nor know how to get those resources. Call this out when you hear people coming up with reasons why they can’t do anything: get them to focus on what they can do, and to do it as soon as possible.

Governments muddle when politicians think they can get away with it. Don’t let them: hold their feet to the fire.

Diagnosis. This is the stage when people make realistic plans to solve the problem. Evaluate not only what you can do but where key stakeholders are and how that affects the situation. What do you need them to do, are they bought in to action, and if not how do you get them there? Assess what resources are available and how to get them if they are not readily at hand. Prioritize the challenges you face. For many, this is an excruciating choice between income and, literally, life-or-death choices. That’s where governments, businesses, organizations, and communities have added responsibility to help those who do not have the resources.

Look at what other countries are doing and copy what works. Korea is often singled out as a model for its quick and extensive testing that allowed it to isolate cases and protect others, along with good communications and transparency in its response. Testing is free and low-income people have equal access to healthcare.

The United Kingdom was talking about a strategy of allowing people to get sick to develop “herd immunity” –in other words, just let everyone get sick so that they get better and immune faster.

But then one study released earlier this week made a huge difference. If governments and individuals failed to act and the pandemic remained uncontrolled, it said. 510,000 people would die in the UK and 2.2 million in the United States. More ambitious measures could cut those numbers in half. Only significantly more aggressive measures could keep the death toll down closer to the number of people felled by the regular flu each year.

Following that, we’ve seen the UK and US ramping up their responses, adding shelter-in-place recommendations and contemplating even stricter measures.

The study included this graph, using powerful imagery to show that the UK’s National Health System would be overwhelmed even with the most aggressive policy measures in place.

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You’ve probably seen versions of this “flattening the curve” graph already –for good reason. Visuals can work wonders where words alone are not always effective.

So can stories from places in the epicenter of the virus, like this cautionary twitter thread from Italy.

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Panic. The good thing about the panic stage is that it is when people are most likely to act. The bad thing is that they are more likely to make bad decisions or be susceptible to misinformation –like those fake news lists going around falsely attributed to Stanford, someone’s brother-in-law’s cousin who is an emergency room doctor, etc etc. No, holding your breath for ten seconds does not help you diagnose whether you have the virus. Hydration is good for you in general, but no, sipping water every fifteen minutes does not wash the virus down so your stomach acid kills it.

You probably have seen panic in the grocery stores: “I need six months’ worth of toilet paper!” Substitute ramen noodles, canned beans, disinfectant wipes, spray cleaner, TV dinners, or your favorite junk/comfort food.

I am proud to have limited my own personal hoarding to the last four Ghirardelli dark chocolate toffee bars on the shelf, though I admit that one is gone already.

At one workshop I did with a trade group, someone raised his hand. “What if you completely miss the first stages and Panic is the first stage?” Yes, that happens too. Try not to be that person.

Action. This is what it sounds like and where you want to be. Individuals: Stay at home as much as possible. If you live in a big city, consider finding a less densely populated place to stay for a while. Keep a safe physical distance –but maintain close social ties through social media and technology. Wash your hands regularly following CDC recommendations. May I suggest keeping a supply of hand lotion to fight chapping and dry skin? If you have the means, support small businesses and gig workers who help you in normal times. Check to see if elderly and vulnerable neighbors need help. Governments: Testing. Accurate information. Transparency. Support for those hit economically. Businesses: Support your employees working from home. Avoid laying them off if at all possible. Remember that the costs of getting things up and running again will offset savings from not paying people.

Where are you? Where is your employer, and where are your neighbors, family, and friends? Where is your government?

Why are you and those around you at a particular stage? Is it appropriate? What can you do to move as many people as possible from denial to action?

In the aftermath, we’ll see very clearly the consequences of the decisions we’ve taken, individually and collectively, during this crisis. You want to be remembered as one of the ones who spent as little time as possible in Denial, Muddling, and Panic, and who maximized Diagnosing and Action.

This article is part of my weekly LinkedIn newsletter series, “Around My Mind” – a regular walk through the ideas, events, people, and places that kick my synapses into action, sparking sometimes surprising or counter-intuitive connections. 

To subscribe to “Around My Mind” and get notifications of new posts, click the blue button on the top right hand on this page. Please don’t be shy about sharing, leaving comments or dropping me a private note with your own reactions.

Michele Wucker

About Author

Michele Wucker is a global thought leader and the author, most recently, of THE GRAY RHINO: How to Recognize and Act on the Obvious Dangers We Ignore (St Martin's Press, 2016). Learn more about her at

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