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A jab of humour: Comics and COVID-19

No Laughing Matter: ‘The Cow-Pock’ by James Gillray (1802)   | Photo Credit: Wiki Commons

In a comic strip published by the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC), of the U.S., two mask-wearing female friends engage in a tête-à-tête. One of them has recently got herself vaccinated against COVID-19. This makes the other curious about the various aspects of vaccination, ranging from side effects to the need, if any, of wearing a mask after vaccination. The answers dispel misconceptions about vaccination, encouraging everyone to get the COVID-19 jab. The unvaccinated friend decides to inoculate herself — the target audience of the comic strip is expected to reach the same decision. This is just one among a burgeoning number of visual narratives, posters and comics spreading awareness about COVID-19 and vaccination. The comics format, with its visual appeal, has a special function: it educates while being entertaining.

Godzilla meets SARS

Indeed, comics have always been at the forefront of projects that disseminate information and allay fears during pandemics. During the Spanish flu epidemic of 1918, for instance, comic characters like Bud Fisher’s Mutt and Jeff, Charles A Voight’s Petey Dink and Edwina Dumm’s Cap Stubbs and Tippie educated the public about social distancing and other

precautions. During the 1980s, the comics anthology volumes Strip AIDS and Strip AIDS U.S.A. offered readers information about the ongoing HIV/AIDS epidemic. Dan Collins’ Sarszilla, a comic where Godzilla meets SARS, and Gary Varvel’s cartoons about H1N1 are other recent examples.

According to the World Health Organization, vaccination “uses your body’s natural defences to build resistance to specific infections and makes your immune system stronger.” But facts haven’t stopped people from being sceptical about inoculation — vaccine hesitancy is fuelled largely by conspiracy theories (such as vaccines causing autism in children) that have always existed side by side with vaccines. Comics have been conducting a running battle against misinformation by making fun of misdirected fears.

The CDC vaccine panel.

The CDC vaccine panel.   | Photo Credit: Special Arrangement

Dismissing fears

For instance, The Cow-Pockor The Wonderful Effects of the New Inoculation! (1802) by James Gillray parodies the apprehensions of people who believed that the small-pox vaccine would turn them into grotesque man-animal hybrids. The drawing, showing cows bounding out of noses and horns sprouting from foreheads, resonated even today when we heard, for instance, Brazil’s President Bolsonaro issuing alerts about the possible “side effects” of the COVID-19 vaccine during its initial roll-out: he had stated that his government won’t take responsibility if the vaccine turned people into “crocodiles” or made women sprout beards.

With ignorance running rife, mainstream comic strips have often stepped in to back science-backed knowledge. Charles

A poster from the Amplifier campaign by Kamiya Chirodian

A poster from the Amplifier campaign by Kamiya Chirodian   | Photo Credit: Special Arrangement

M. Schulz’s Peanuts, for instance, advocated vaccination among children and parents against measles, polio and small-pox at various points in its decades-old run. Schulz played on common fears about side effects only to dismiss them. For instance, a panel from May 14, 1956 has a much-bandaged Charlie Brown telling a puzzled Lucy that he took multiple shots against polio, mumps, whooping cough, small-pox, measles, shot... and then fell down the stairs.

Comics are at it even today. Skipper Coates, an educator whose social media name is Real Ms. Frizzle, goes about “making Jr. High science exciting again” with her set of comics that educate students about COVID-19 vaccines. Mixing words and images, Coates conveys complex scientific information in an elegant and entertaining manner. Although microphages and ribosomes are anthropomorphised to pique interest, the immunological mechanisms of a vaccine are explained without compromising on the science behind them.

Believe in science

Similarly, an NHS doctor, writing under the social media pseudonym Teebs Doodles, uses minimalist drawings and colour codes to

A poster from the Amplifier campaign by Jessica Thornton

A poster from the Amplifier campaign by Jessica Thornton   | Photo Credit: Special arrangement

convey different phases of clinical trials, thus informing us about the authorisation process and safety protocols of vaccines.The visual aspect of comics works well to create a sense of community among those who are vaccinated while inviting others to follow suit. The non-profit design lab Amplifier’s #Vaccinated campaign persuades everyone to get inoculated against COVID-19. There are free-to-download posters on the website, which either show people from diverse backgrounds flaunting their immunised status or are abstract artworks expressing conviction in science.

Back home in India, dairy brand Amul welcomed the vaccination drive with a cartoon showing a health worker with a young adult at a medical centre accompanied by the legend, “No waiteen’ if you’re eighteen!” Print media cartoonists have tackled vaccine hesitancy by consistently countering fake news, with images such as the cartoon of a visibly distressed coronavirus being ambushed by vaccine wielding medical workers.

Comics used to spread awareness is a good example of art being used in the cause of science. Such collaborations are the way ahead in these times, when we need to marshal all resources to combat the deadly virus.

Sathyaraj Venkatesan is Associate Professor and a comics enthusiast teaching at the National Institute of Technology, Tiruchirappalli. An alumnus of NIT Trichy, S.Yuvan is based in Chennai.

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Printable version | Sep 25, 2021 10:06:39 AM |

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