8. COVID-19: What to do if someone is in denial?

Dear Parents,

Good morning from Yola. Yesterday, we locked our front gates to the campus at 7:00PM. AUN is completely closed. There is no playbook for leading during a pandemic; our ship has left the safe harbor and we are heading for open seas. For the ship to navigate the uncharted waters of the COVID-19 pandemic, every person on the ship must contribute to smooth sailing. As such, anyone in denial about the seriousness of COVID-19 will distract the rest of us from doing what needs to be done.


This letter will be about COVID-19: What to do if someone is in denial?


“What is happening around the world has shown that the at-risk group are those over 60 years old. So why close schools? Ninety percent of us will show no sign if we are infected.”


The statement can easily be dismissed because we now know that while each age group has different risks and vulnerabilities to COVID-19, what is emerging is that greater than 50% of new confirmed cases are below age 50, with an increasing number below age 25. Everyone is at risk; no country, and no one can claim zero risk. The bigger problem with the statement above is that it was said on television by Brazilian President Jair Bolsonaro. He elaborated further, “In my particular case, because of my background as an athlete, I wouldn’t need to worry if I was infected with the virus. I wouldn’t feel anything or at the very worst it would be like a little flu or a bit of a cold.”


Why is he saying these things? Many believe he is trying to convince Brazilians to continue working, to keep the economy going, which seems to be his priority over protecting Brazilians from COVID-19. While the economy is important, the strategy of keeping Brazil open in the short term may prove devastating in the long term.

As of this morning, Brazil has 2,554 confirmed cases of COVID-19 (including 59 dead, 2 recovered), the most in South America. Governors of the 26 states are taking action by closing shopping malls and schools, banning public gatherings, and converting Brazil’s beloved football stadiums into field hospitals. The public is behind the governors, and every evening at 8:30PM they open their windows and go onto their balconies, not to sing like in Italy, but to loudly bang pots and pans in solidarity in discontent at President Bolsonaro’s failure to admit the seriousness of COVID-19 and deploy federal resources to protect Brazilians. In response to all of this, on March 22, 2020, on television, President Bolsonaro declared, “the people will soon see that they were tricked by these governors and by the large part of the media when it comes to coronavirus.” President Bolsonaro is very committed to denial.


All of us have a Bolsonaro in our lives -- someone in denial, who minimizes a large problem, to the point of not facing the dire consequences of inaction. Arguing, debating, and presenting facts usually will not work with a Bolsonaro. Instead, the best approach is to build trust, become curious about the person in denial, find out his or her personal values and how those values key into his or her identity. If you can connect with the person in terms of shared common personal values, then you can move forward with trying to determine what emotions are preventing the person from accepting the reality of COVID-19. Often, it is worry – the person might be worried deeply about money, and how COVID-19 will cause financial problems and job loss. You can say you share the same worry, that unemployment is a legitimate concern. 


Once you have established trust on this level, then like a flexible conversational gymnast, you can help the person in denial to see that his or her deeply held values are in conflict with his or her beliefs about COVID-19. Help the person understand that the previous opinion is understandable given the information he or she had at the time (early reports of COVID-19 indicated it might be like SARS, serious, but not a global pandemic, etc), but now that new information is available (COVID-19 is a pandemic, threatening every single person on the planet), it is simply a matter of evolving the beliefs to stay aligned with the core values. Your goal is to help the person in denial to see that while worries about unemployment, inflation, and economic recession are valid, he or she is actually actively making it worse by not realizing the gravity of the COVID-19 pandemic and changing beliefs and behaviors accordingly. Even the most fierce denialists want to hold beliefs consistent with their values.


Using President Bolsonaro as an example, one approach to helping him move past his mindset of denial is to talk with him about his experience as a Captain in the Brazilian Army. From various accounts, his time in the military was very formative for him; he found his voice and deepened his national pride. He has gone on record publicly to say that the earlier Brazilian military regime (1964-1985) was a “glorious” time, leading “to a more sustainable and prosperous Brazil.” Of note, one of his heroes is Winston Churchill, he has praised him for governing during WWII. By reframing the COVID-19 crisis from a medical emergency to a war on germs, using military terminology, President Bolsonaro could then reconcile his deeply held values with his mindset and beliefs, and move from denial to acceptance about the seriousness of COVID-19 and begin executing a plan of action at the federal level, using the Brazilian military to send in the support and aid needed to combat the virus. He will be praised as the Winston Churchill of Brazil, leading during a time of uncertainty against an unprecedented enemy.


Disturbing news like a pandemic is overwhelming, and it is human nature to use denial as a coping mechanism to shield us from feeling strong emotions associated with it. COVID-19 is a deadly invisible villain, unpredictable where it might strike next, and seems out of our control. To regain some sense of psychological control, we use denial as one mechanism, helping us to continue functioning. Additionally, some people are just wired to see conspiracy theories and alternative interpretations, and want to talk about them and seek validation from others. All of us have a family member or close friend like this, and we tolerate it. However, during this COVID-19 pandemic, tolerance is insufficient. Proactively, Twitter understands this, and has taken the lead and recently issued updates to their safety rules:



Mar 19, 2020

Update: we’re expanding our safety rules to include content that could place people at a higher risk of transmitting COVID-19.

Now, we will require people to remove Tweets that include the following:

Denial of expert guidance

Encouragement to use fake or ineffective treatments, preventions, and diagnostic techniques

Misleading content purporting to be from experts or authorities


Twitter is using the right approach. For the sake of our learning community, don’t be a Bolsonaro. And if you have a Bolsonaro in your life, build trust, connect over common values, and find a path forward together that helps us achieve the common goal of defeating COVID-19.


My wish for today is that everyone remain vigilante, take COVID-19 seriously, abide by all directives from FGN, and understand that polite social distancing is now survival distancing. 


Always, with best regards, stay safe, Semper Gumby


Dawn Dekle, PhD

AUN President (Vice-Chancellor)


Teaser: stay tuned for the next letter from the desk of the AUN President, on the topic “COVID-19: Together at Home”