The pandemic is extraordinary not just because it's a once-in-a-century event, but because it's a challenge literally every human on the planet has faced. To some degree at least, each of us has been impacted by Covid-19 this year. We are all in this together. 

But rather than the species pulling together to face a common threat like in some sci-fi alien invasion movie, instead we've often turned against each other, hoarding supplies, bickering about masks, and concocting wild conspiracy theories

History tells us this is far from unprecedented (outbreaks of plague, for instance, often prompted horrific pogroms against the local Jewish population), but why exactly do pandemics kick off such nastiness? And what does that mean for leaders who must manage diverse, mutually exclusive, and sometimes downright toxic responses to the pandemic? 

A rogue's gallery of pandemic responses  

That's the subject of new research from researcher Mimi Lam, who studies what happens when complex human and ecological systems collide. In a recent paper in Humanities and Social Sciences Communications, Lam breaks down people's response to the pandemic and explains how understanding the "16 Covid personality types" can help leaders design better pandemic plans. Here's her list of pandemic personalities: 

  1. Deniers: who downplay the viral threat, promoting business as usual

  2. Spreaders: who want it to spread, herd immunity to develop, and normality to return

  3. Harmers: who try to harm others by, for example, spitting or coughing at them

  4. Realists: who recognize the reality of the potential harm and adjust their behaviors

  5. Worriers: who stay informed and safe to manage their uncertainty and fear

  6. Contemplators: who isolate and reflect on life and the world

  7. Hoarders: who panic-buy and hoard products to quell their insecurity

  8. Invincibles: often young, who believe themselves to be immune

  9. Rebels: who defiantly ignore social rules restricting their individual freedoms

  10. Blamers: who vent their fears and frustrations onto others

  11. Exploiters: who exploit the situation for power, profit or brutality

  12. Innovators: who design or re-purpose resources to fight the pandemic

  13. Supporters: who show their solidarity in support of others

  14. Altruists: who help the vulnerable, elderly, and isolated

  15. Warriors: who, like the front-line health care workers, combat its grim reality

  16. Veterans: who experienced SARS or MERS and willingly comply with restrictions

You'll recognize many of these types from your Facebook feed and the nightly news. They're also not mutually exclusive. You can easily imagine a Veteran who is also a Realist, for instance. 

But while the fact that humans are behaving in weird ways in response to Covid isn't a revelation, those in charge are often still blindsided by the craziness and infighting. The value of Lam's work isn't in creating a characterization system to label your looniest colleagues (though go ahead and match acquaintances with numbers if that soothes you). 

Instead, it's to remind anyone charged with leading through this difficult time that humans react in diverse and sometimes difficult ways when faced with uncertain, invisible threats. You'll do a lot better if you expect all of these personality types to come out of the woodwork and plan for plenty of discussion, trust building, and differing responses, rather than counting on consistency and rationality.