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Comics and cartoons are a powerful way to teach kids about COVID-19

An image from My Hero is You, produced by the UN and several humanitarian agencies. IASC/Helen Patuck

The global COVID-19 pandemic has turned children’s lives upside down. Stay-at-home orders mean that they cannot go to school, visit a playground or spend time with friends. Just like adults, they may be scared and frustrated.

But given the right information, children can be powerful agents of change in their families and communities. That’s according to a UNICEF guide for communicating with children. This guide highlights the need to communicate with children in an age-appropriate, culturally sensitive, inclusive and positive way. It emphasises that to be effective, the communication must be interesting and engaging.

In response to the current pandemic, leading health scientists and child psychologists have joined forces with writers, educators and artists to produce innovative communication materials. These range from children’s books and videos to infographics and comics. It’s a powerful collaboration: scientists provide the credibility and accuracy, while artists ensure this is communicated with creative flair and appealing design.

And there’s science to back up their efforts. An academic overview of research looking at educational comics has concluded that comics have great potential to make complex topics more meaningful to diverse audiences. This is achieved by combining visuals with powerful metaphors, character-driven narratives and emotionally charged storylines. Scholars confirm that science-themed comics can both entertain and educate, thereby stimulating interest in science topics.

Comic books have been shown to be more effective than textbooks in increasing interest in and enjoyment of science topics. The medium is particularly effective at engaging low literacy audiences and young people with a low interest in science.

Cartoons and comics may, research suggests, be particularly effective when trying to explain viruses and how they affect our health.

Here are some of the best examples I have come across in the past few weeks. All were created especially for communicating about the novel coronavirus and COVID-19. Importantly, these resources are shared freely online, and some are translated into several languages.

A variety of resources

A fantasy creature called Ario is the lead character in My Hero is You. The book resulted from collaboration between several agencies of the United Nations and several dozen organisations working in the humanitarian sector. Ario helps children to understand why the coronavirus is changing their lives and how to cope when they are feeling worried, angry or sad.

Script writer Helen Patuck drew on input from more than 1,700 children, parents, caregivers and teachers from around the world who shared their ways of coping with the COVID-19 pandemic. This online book is also available in audio format. Translation has been finalised or is in progress in more than 100 languages.

Vaayu is the superhero who’s been called upon to help Indian children cope with the pandemic in a comic book issued by the Indian ministry of health and family welfare.

From Singapore comes a series of comic strips for young children featuring Baffled Bunny and Curious Cat. They’re seeking advice and clarification from Doctor Duck. This series was created by award-winning graphic novelist Sonny Liew, who worked with Associate Professor Hsu Li Yang, the programme leader for infectious diseases at the National University of Singapore.

Nosy Crow, a UK publisher, has created a digital book for primary school age children, with the help of Professor Graham Medley of the London School of Hygiene & Tropical Medicine, an expert in the modelling of infectious diseases. The book is also available as a free e-book in Afrikaans, with text by South African author Jaco Jacobs.

After asking experts in mental health what kids may want to know about the coronavirus, Cory Turner, an educational reporter on National Public Radio, created an online comic that is also available in a printable “zine” version. It’s available in Chinese and Spanish too.

A comic strip promoted by the South African health department features Wazi, who asks questions about the coronavirus and then shares advice provided by his parents and teachers.

Oaky and the Virus was written by South African author, poet and academic Athol Williams. It’s available in English, isiZulu, Siswati, Sepedi and Tshivenda, and helps children understand why they have to stay at home and wash their hands regularly.

Jive Media Africa, a science communication agency in South Africa, created a series of cartoon-based infographics with “Hay’khona Corona” as a theme. “Hay’khona” is a South African expression meaning “no, definitely not!”. These infographics are based on the World Health Organisation’s guidelines around COVID-19. They’re available in several of South Africa’s official languages, as well as languages spoken in other parts of the continent like Yoruba, KiSwahili, French and Portuguese.

Instagrammers are also creating and sharing graphics about coping with COVID-19, with good examples at “comicallysane”, “callouscomics” and “comicsforgood”.

Evidence-based communication

Of course, comic strips aren’t just for kids. Some have been created specifically for adults, tackling questions about the coronavirus with a mixture of education and humour. One example is a collection curated by Graphic Medicine, a health communication platform created by a team of researchers, information specialists and artists.

All of this work and the many other comics and cartoons available to help explain COVID-19 show that these media are far from frivolous. Scientists and communicators are becoming more aware of the special appeal and communication potential of science comics, and are starting to use them as part of an evidence-based portfolio of communication tools.

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