Crisis Communication in Pandemic Times
A semiotic Analysis of COVID-19 campaigns in Switzerland, Mexico, India, Vietnam and Brazil
The COVID-19 pandemic has been posing major challenges to governments, institutions and countless individuals for well over a year now. Periods of crisis can create both opportunities and risks. The same holds true for crisis communication, which, if successfully managed, can help prevent, curb or overcome challenging situations. Accordingly, the central question faced by health authorities around the world at the beginning of the corona crisis was how to provide information about the virus’s risks and the appropriate behaviours in a manner that could help reach all segments of the population.
In February 2020 the Swiss Federal Office of Public Health, together with the Zurich-based agency Rod Kommunikation, worked under extreme time pressure to develop a large-scale health campaign entitled “So schützen wir uns” (“How we protect ourselves”). Since then, this campaign has used both print and online media to keep the Swiss population updated on the country’s preventive and protective measures. The distinctive colour code adapts to the respective threat level, and simple pictograms illustrate appropriate behaviours. A typical characteristic of Swiss campaigns is their multilingualism: all official communication uses the four national languages. German, French, Italian and Romansh are not only enshrined as official languages in the Federal Constitution of the Swiss Confederation; they also reflect the cultural identity of the nation as a whole. The corona campaign incorporated English as a fifth language.
However, Switzerland is only one of numerous countries that have tailored their corona campaigns to the individual characteristics of their culture. How have these countries communicated such a vitally important issue to their often diverse populations? In many cases, the priority is not only to overcome the barriers of multilingualism. Illiteracy, religious questions, social hierarchies and political controversies can also have an influence on the success of crisis communication. The following examples provide a bit of insight into the variety of global health campaigns and their special cultural aspects.
The Mexican government recognised the danger of the highly contagious coronavirus very early on. When the swine flu was beginning to spread worldwide in 2009, the government implemented strict measures, including quarantine obligations for infected individuals and the closure of nearly all shops. Mexico City, with its large population and high population density, is a high-risk area for pandemics. The diverse mix of people from different backgrounds and cultures raised a central question: how can the pandemic’s risks be communicated in largely informal settings, including uneducated communities?
The official measures that were taken by Mexico to combat the spread of the coronavirus included the development of a female comic figure, Susana Distancia, for the government’s communication campaign. The superhero is often depicted with outspread arms to illustrate the required 1.5 metres of social distance required during the lockdown. Her name is a play on words: “mantengan su sana distancia” is Spanish for “keep a healthy distance”. There are also cultural reasons for the choice of a superhero. In Mexico, Lucha Libre has been a popular form of professional freestyle wrestling since the 1930s. Cheered on by frenetically applauding communities of fans, the competing luchadores and luchadoras in frightening masks embody heroes, animals or gods.
For many years, the phenomenon of the costumed superhero has also been observed on the streets of Mexico: these self-appointed superheroes serve their fellow human beings by directing traffic, fighting crime or helping the needy. Susana Distancia is part of this tradition. Her comic character is an excellent example of how risk communication can successfully reach citizens across all population and age groups. She even has a Twitter account with over 55,000 followers and her own website, where she offers helpful tips for staying healthy during the pandemic. Susana has since gained four superhero companions: Refugio, Prudencia, Esperanza and Aurora, with their different personalities and cape colours, personify the traffic-light system for coronavirus risk.
In a country with more than 1.3 billion people, 22 official languages and a multitude of religions, widespread communication can pose a major challenge. In March 2020 Indian Prime Minister Narendra Modi used powerful language to announce his country’s COVID measures in a televised speech. In the video, he holds up a small poster to illustrate his central message: the three syllables CO-RO-NA are highlighted in the slogan “Koi road par na nikale”: “No one should go out on the roads.”
The radical three-week lockdown that went into effect just a few hours later was a tremendous shock for the population of India. Very few people had time to prepare. The lockdown was particularly hard for day labourers, who, without work, were forced to return to their towns and villages. Due to the fact that public transport services had been halted, hundreds of thousands of workers were stranded or forced to travel home under extremely harsh conditions. This situation was exacerbated by the draconian action taken by police, who used their batons to beat anyone who violated the lockdown rules.
However, there were also entertaining moments. In some Indian cities, creative police officers dressed up as “Corona Cops”, using papier mâché to transform their motorcycle helmets into mock viruses with bright red spikes. With these impressive masks, they confronted people during road-side checks to tell them about the risks of the virus and ask them to behave appropriately.
Vietnam’s communication of its official COVID-19 health advice was considerably trendier. An animated film and charming Karaoke song were used for informing people of the risks and protective measures. “Ghen Cô Vy” is a catchy tune that went viral immediately after its release and has since amassed over 75 million views on YouTube. In it, the corona rules of conduct are embedded in a love story. However, before the two protagonists can get closer, they have to fight against the corona virus. As a karaoke-style song, its lyrics are shown line by line, explaining the virus’s origins and risks, along with how to prevent its spread. The refrain culminates in a joyful hand-washing appeal: “Thoroughly wash, wash, wash!”
Unsurprisingly, the popular tune also inspired Vietnamese TikTok star Quang Dang to create a corresponding dance challenge. In a country with a younger-than-average population, the digitally shared dance moves resulted in overwhelming social-media success.
The fact that Vietnam chose a karaoke song as a form of governmental communication is no accident. Singing together has a long tradition in the country. In this context, karaoke is a relatively new — but extremely popular — phenomenon that emerged in Japan’s karaoke bars in the 1970s and spread rapidly, first to other Asian countries and then worldwide. In Vietnam the song made it possible to reach multiple segments of the population — because singing brings people together, regardless of age, hierarchies or levels of education.
Another interesting aspect of the country’s COVID-19 communication was the use of verbal and visual revolution rhetoric in both the karaoke video and other media. For example, an informational poster created by the young Vietnamese graphic designer Hiep Le Duc was strongly inspired by the style of communist propaganda posters. In front of a rising sun, two health workers hold up a red flag that is blowing in the wind. The slogan shown above them reads: “To stay at home is to love your country.” The memory of the horrific 20th-century war and the economic rise of Vietnam under a socialist government are still characteristic and unifying themes for the country.
In the case of Brazil’s coronavirus response, it is impossible to speak of unity. Several of the country’s large cities turned against the government’s official policies in order to protect their populations from the virus. One impressive example is the hashtag campaign #FiqueEmCasa (Stay home!) developed by the city of São Paulo. With a tone of urgency, the informational video calls on people to “Follow the advice of the health experts, European governments and the WHO: Stay home!” The unspoken message between the lines: Do not follow the advice of the Brazilian government!
Since the early days of the pandemic, the government has done relatively little to combat the virus. In fact, President Jair Bolsonaro has even sabotaged the COVID-prevention efforts of governors and mayors. Recently, he called on his followers to ignore the lockdown rules, asking, “Why should we stay home and whine?” And when he himself was infected with the coronavirus, he continued to travel through the country without a mask. Bolsonaro also intentionally delayed a nationwide vaccination campaign and has refused offers for large vaccine shipments. With over 461,000 fatal cases (May 2021), Brazil now ranks third worldwide, behind the US and India. The country is deeply divided between the president’s supporters and opponents.
Responsibility and Solidarity
It is sobering to reflect on the past year of the corona pandemic. The initial hopes of facing this challenge as a unified world community failed quickly owing to various national, political and economic interests. Nevertheless, communication strategists around the world have made an effort to educate populations and show them ways in which the crisis can be overcome.
The solidarity flags still hanging from a number of Swiss balconies and windows remind us of one of the strongest emotions in the first lockdown, namely that of solidarity. Migros sold the flags last spring for CHF 6.95. In the four national languages the words WIR, NOUS, NOI and NUS (for “we”) in white letters form the Swiss cross against a red background. The motif is framed by the statement “Together with responsibility and solidarity” — a strong, national and humanitarian symbol. May the spirit of solidarity continue to carry the country through the pandemic era. #