Comics Conveyed Public Health Storytelling During Pandemic

By Carolyn Crist

December 24, 2020

NEW YORK (Reuters Health) - Comics have contributed to the visual culture of the COVID-19 pandemic, creating a way for people to share their experiences and emotions, according to a group of medical illustrators and researchers.

With widespread social media sharing, comics gave voice to a variety of global experiences and bypassed traditional routes of narrative storytelling, they write in The Lancet.

"Humans have evolved to share our experiences and information through story. It's the natural way we arrange our thoughts and can be an enjoyable way to teach and learn from each other when done well," said lead author Dr. Cilein Kearns of the Medical Research Institute in Wellington, New Zealand.

"In a year saturated with text-heavy information and news about the pandemic, comics have been an enjoyable visual way to share messages and experiences," he told Reuters Health by email. "Important comics that have resonated and contributed to the dialogue have been made by anyone with a story to tell, rather than particular formal government or medical institutions."

Dr. Kearns and colleagues write about the ways that comics have helped people to consider public-health measures such as social distancing, wearing a face mask, avoiding crowds and taking a vaccine.

Although the pandemic is a global concern, individual actions determine the spread of the virus, they write. Comics can add a layer of emotion, empathy and even humor to help people see beyond their own circumstances and make choices that consider others.

The National University of Singapore, for instance, published The COVID-19 Chronicles, a series of 100 comics that uses humor, empathy and expert advice to reflect on the challenges of the pandemic. The series shifted based on Singapore's national response to COVID-19 and incorporated various scientific disciplines and reader viewpoints. The comics were shared internationally with different translations, and the World Health Organization's Global Outbreak Alert and Response Network endorsed them as well, which expanded the reach of the series.

"We are fortunate that COVID-19 cannot be transmitted by digital comics given that, despite our best containment measures, they continue to spread virally and connect people in the pandemic," the authors write.

In The Lancet, the authors shared an example from the series called "Only Serious Cases." Reminiscent of the "The Doctor Is In" setup from Peanuts, a doctor is admitting patients to the hospital and quickly becomes overwhelmed by a dozen characters who want to be checked for a mild cough, runny nose or sore throat. In the final scene, he collapses and holds up a sign that indicates the doctor is "out."

The other characters then wonder who's going to help them. The final panel, which features an infectious diseases specialist at the WHO, encourages readers to allow hospitals to attend to serious COVID-19 cases first and speak with their primary-care doctor about potential symptoms.

Major cartoon and comic characters have discussed pandemic concerns and public-health measures this year as well, Dr. Kearns said, pointing to Sesame Street and Marvel heroes who modeled safe practices. Illustrators, artists and graphic designers also teamed up with scientists to explain scientific aspects of the coronavirus itself, as well as relatable frustrations such as working from home or children interrupting video meetings.

"The visuals and narratives that have emerged during the pandemic allow us to collectively share the experience and build collective meaning and memory that help us understand this moment," said Dr. Brian Callender of the University of Chicago Department of Medicine. Dr. Callender wrote a separate article in The Lancet about comics and the visual culture of the pandemic.

Comics traced the emergence and spread of COVID-19 and the scientific, social and political changes that occurred as countries worked to contain the spread of the virus and seek a cure, he said. Many times this year, comics commented on the breakdown of boundaries and the disruption of social life.

"In understanding what others are experiencing, we better understand our own experiences," he told Reuters Health by email. "The comics from the pandemic will become an important cultural artifact and contribute to the broader visual culture of pandemics, in a historical sense."

SOURCE: The Lancet, online December 10, 2020.