Crisis Communication in Pandemic Times

A semiotic Analysis of COVID-19 campaigns in Switzerland, Mexico, India, Vietnam and Brazil

You don’t think karaoke can combat COVID-19? We know that Vietnam used it successfully for prevention. SEMIOTICS.CH — get cultural insights
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Switzerland

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.

Poster «How we protect ourselves», © BAG, Rod Kommunikation, Switzerland 2020

Mexico

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?

Susana Distancia, © Secretariat of Health, Mexico, 2020

India

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.”

Screenshot of Narendra Modi during his televised address, March 2020

Vietnam

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!”

Poster “To stay at home is to love your country!” © Hiep Le Duc 2020

Brazil

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!

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.

Solidarity flag, Made in China for CHF 6.95, Migros, April 2020

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SEMIOTICS.CH is the first Swiss expert network for Applied Semiotics, we bring together the perspectives of various fields. Swiss expertise — Global Network

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SEMIOTICS.CH

SEMIOTICS.CH is the first Swiss expert network for Applied Semiotics, we bring together the perspectives of various fields. Swiss expertise — Global Network