by Rachel Massaro


It’s sad but true… we’re facing just the tip of the COVID-iceberg (collective global sigh). But I’ve come to the conclusion that we’re using the phrase “tip of the iceberg” all too frequently these days. It’s in the headlines ALL.THE.TIME. And I’m as guilty as everyone else – see my quote in the Silicon Valley Business Journal (eeek!). So, I polled my friends and family for alternatives to that phrase, and here are all the (PG-rated) options they came up with: scratching the surface, a drop in the bucket, just the beginning, first layer of the onion, and start of a long race. Insert head-scratching emoji here.

Google alternatives and you’ll come up with a total of zero relevant or useful results (if you can prove me wrong – please do!).

So I think it’s fair to assert that any alternative to the phrase “tip of the iceberg” will be sorely inadequate. Ultimately, what that phrase means is that not only have we seen just a tiny sliver of a sizeable problem, but that the problem – like a ship hitting an iceberg – is one of ‘titanic’ proportions.

Here’s the actual definition, from Merriam-Webster online:

tip of the iceberg noun phrase
: the earliest, most obvious, or most superficial manifestation of some phenomenon
First Known Use 1969, in the meaning defined above
History and Etymology from an iceberg being mostly submerged

Without a crystal ball, there’s no way to know what the future will hold. We can model, project, ‘assume’ and ‘surmise’ all we want, but the ripple effects of the COVID-19 pandemic on our economic and community health will undoubtedly get worse before they get better, and will be palpable for a long time to come. What we’ve seen thus far is truly just the tip of the iceberg! And there, I said it again (another sigh).

So… are we doomed to keep repeating the same old phrase over and over again? Maybe. But if necessity remains the mother of invention, then this global, collective ‘brainstorm’ is certain to come up with something.


P.S. Let’s be honest, these are depressing... But to reiterate my point, here are just a few of the 189,000 search results for COVID + “tip of the iceberg” in the news:

  • “The launch of the COVID-19 Fund for Feeding Families with multimillion-dollar donations from Sheryl Sandberg and her fiance Tom Bernthal… is a great model for keeping Second Harvest Food Bank going during the crisis. But that’s just the tip of the iceberg.”
    (Mercury News, 3/14/20)
  • “The increase in reported cases is the result of several factors including the spread of the virus and increased testing capacity, health officials said. Still, officials say the number of confirmed cases is still likely the tip of the iceberg.”
    (Mercury News, 3/29/20)
  • “Although public health officials have been providing daily updates about numbers of cases, deaths, hospitalizations and tests, those figures could be ‘the tip of the iceberg,’ said Dr. Neeraj Sood, vice dean of research at the Price School.”
    (NBC News, 4/12/20)
  • “…experts say the various counts kept by several news outlets is likely just the ‘tip of the iceberg’ of the true toll of COVID-19 in senior facilities.”
    (Business Insider, 4/13/20)
  • “So the current reported U.S. death toll may only be ‘the tip of the iceberg,"’ Hayward [an expert on mortality statistics who is a member of a CDC advisory council on vital statistics] told ProPublica.”
    (Newsweek, 4/16/20)
  • [Regarding the early action taken in Seattle] “‘We knew the numbers we saw were just the tip of the iceberg, and that there were much greater numbers below the surface,’ Jenny A. Durkan, the mayor of Seattle, said in an interview. ‘We had to act.’”
    (New York Times, 4/23/20)
  • “‘More than 300 startups have lopped off over 30,000 jobs since March 11,’ the [National Venture Capital Association] said, adding, ‘This is likely just the tip of the iceberg for what will be tough times for startups over the coming months.’”
    (Silicon Valley Business Journal, 4/28/20)
  • “When Broadway closed on March 12, it was only the tip of the iceberg: live theater has since suspended operations around the country.”
    (New York Times, 5/4/20)
  • [Regarding pandemic-related innovations] “Other groundbreaking innovations include Datos Health’s new remote management system for home-quarantined COVID-19 cases; and’s real-time remote vital signs monitoring app, which allows anyone to easily measure oxygen saturation, respiration rate, heart rate and heart rate variability – just by looking into a smartphone camera. And this is just the tip of the iceberg.”
    (Forbes, 5/4/20)

And let’s round off the list with this one, which refers to the “tip of the tip” of the iceberg:

  • “In India, with 1.3 billion people, hundreds of millions of poor, living in unhygienic and crammed-in conditions, there is a very real fear that if the testing starts too far behind the curve, the confirmed cases won’t even account for the tip of the tip of the iceberg.”
    (Reuters, 4/6/20)

About the Author

Rachel Massaro is the Vice President at Joint Venture as well as the Director of Research at Joint Venture's Silicon Valley Institute for Regional Studies . You can learn more about Rachel on her bio page.

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