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Coronavirus: How this Singapore illustrator’s comics fight misinformation in the age of COVID-19

Singapore illustrator Weiman Kow

Singapore illustrator Weiman Kow

WhatsApp forwards ask you to stock up on N95 masks. Your friends are buying immunity-boosting supplements. Office colleagues recommend changing the soap you use. Meanwhile, your mother sends you bottles of nilavembu kashayam.

Life in the age of COVID-19 can be complicated. As the coronavirus scare spreads further with every passing day, so does the flood of (mis)information bombarding people from everywhere, and parents across the world are in a fix on how to educate their kids on staying safe.

But then, Weiman Kow’s comic happened.

The Singapore artist’s first 17-panel illustration has gone viral since January 31; she had put it out after Singapore recorded its first case of the virus. It begins by reading, “There’s only ONE thing you need to understand about how coronavirus spreads…” and has quickly become the go-to guide for kids — and adults — to take simple measures in fighting the spread.

“It all happened when I was recovering from a respiratory illness earlier this year,” says Weiman, “The news about the ‘Wuhan virus’ had just broke, and as I was doing research on it, I found that many informative articles about the topic were difficult to understand. Being an illustrator, I decided to simplify what I’d learnt from trustworthy health sources and break it down into a comic format, so that even children could easily grasp it.”

Today, Weiman’s illustrations can be found in adverts and posters — even translated into vernacular languages too, for more people to understand. Her work can be seen in the Chennai Airport as well.

How do you see the role of social media at a time like this?

Social media will be a mess of misinformation, and I don’t think there will be any stopping it, since fear-mongering is how social media companies make their money. Even I get caught up in it sometimes, and have to remind myself to verify facts, go to the WHO website or national health websites.

That’s why I’m launching a campaign called Comics For Good, to encourage everyone to look at those sites (and not social media!) to fight the misinformation. We will run campaigns to showcase comic work that highlights social issues, and encourage artists to create work along those lines at the page: https://www.instagram.com/comicsforgood/

We have also started an international Kids Draw COVID-19 Facts Challenge, to show that anyone can be an advocate for right health information, as long as they get their information from a reputable health source.

Has the virality of the comic revealed what kind of gaps exist in effective communication of such serious information?

Yes. Up until when I did the comic, all the messaging I’ve seen from health authorities were about “What to do” (handwashing, etc) but no one is explaining the “Why we do this?” I think that is why it is so popular: it gives people a reason, and a certain sense of power and safety comes from knowing.

Weiman’s popular comic on staying safe from the coronavirus outbreak

Weiman’s popular comic on staying safe from the coronavirus outbreak

The goal I want to achieve with my comics is always to enable my readers to make the right decisions with the knowledge, rather than offer prescriptive actions. After all, most things are a matter of choice, individual location and situation, and personal inclination towards risk (like wearing or not wearing masks).

I’ve also committed to having future comics vetted by doctors.

My focus is now on making sure good information reaches people in Third World countries, where health systems are weaker, where governments are unable to put in extensive tracing measures and subsidies for the public to come forward when sick.

How did the idea of sourcing volunteer translators from different countries to make the comic more accessible come about?

It started very early on, within a week of posting the first comic. People commenting on the Facebook post in Singapore were asking for a Chinese version to show their parents, as some of them do not speak English. So I created one with some volunteers.

Then when requests started coming in from Indonesia, Korea, Vietnam, Mexico, India, Portugal, I had a ready set of images with no text that I could forward them, with translation guidelines.

A Malayalam transalation of the comic

A Malayalam transalation of the comic

My structure of sending out translator packs to volunteer translators was heavily influenced by the tech community’s open source communities. My philosophy is in giving people the tools to do the best they can for their communities, at a time like this, and to encourage collaboration between various groups so translation work gets done faster.

I’m creating free pdf downloads for various languages in India, with the help of volunteer translators at: https://gumroad.com/

Do you plan on continuing making vital PSAs in the future?

Yes, I have learnt that my first comic is lacking some WHO precautions, and is one of the contenders for the next topic to work on. I also have a draft of a comic on fighting misinformation, and how it can lead to further spread of the disease. The way I see it, it’s no longer a fight against COVID19, but a fight against misinformation, a fight against the infodemic. So I’ll be prioritising fighting misinformation over comics on new facts.

I’ve also committed to having future comics vetted by doctors.

My focus is now on making sure good information reaches people in the third world countries, where health systems are weaker, where governments are unable to put in extensive tracing measures and subsidies for the public to come forward when sick. (Singapore is lucky in that regard.)

Are you aware of the comic’s popularity in India?

I learnt that my comic became popular in India from a PDF with the Siemens logo. Unfortunately, I wasn’t aware that Siemens took my images, modified the text, removed my watermark, and put their logo on it until people started to share it to me. They actually sourced it from Taiba Hospital, who in turn also took my work without my knowledge. I also find that the Chennai Airport is using my images without my permission, and have removed my watermark as well.

While I am upset at not being contacted about these unofficial changes made to my comic, the edits to the text by Taiba Hospital are medically accurate and useful to the general public.


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Printable version | May 26, 2022 9:30:48 am | https://www.thehindu.com/entertainment/coronavirus-how-this-singapore-illustrators-comics-fight-misinformation-in-the-age-of-covid-19/article31031982.ece