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  • Ian Dan Mari

The Battle against Covid-19: Design's pivotal role.

History of past pandemics has shown that we are still far away from adapting to the unpredictable tenor of these viruses–– whether it be technological or societal advancement.

"(The worst) Pandemic in modern history in 100 Years" - Dr Anthony Fauci


After being battered by the virus through 2020; with a staggering record of 79.8 million cases and 1.76 million deaths, Covid-19 brought the world to a standstill. Which is why the enthusiasm behind Pfizer /BioNTech COVID-19 vaccine spread like wildfire as the U.K became the first country in the world to authorize the vaccine. Having friends residing in London's different boroughs, I cheered alongside them as the good news began to pick up worldwide.


The news came a week prior Christmas Holidays and after a long string of criticism from countries like Italy and Australia— branding the British Government as 'complacent'. The U.K, who now has imposed its country in different lockdown tiers, was initially reluctant to impose a lockdown. Consequently, it recorded more than 32,000 deaths making it the highest in Europe, exceeding its former EU member, Italy. While the U.K was branded as a 'problematic child' in Europe, governments worldwide shared the same hesitation to put their own respective economies and way of life on pause. Even so now, with the new Covid-19 B117 strain plaguing the world, it proves that the war against this pandemic is far from over.


But unlike the U.K, countries like New Zealand and Singapore were swift to impose mask mandates and weeks-long lockdowns to suppress the virus. Solutions to contain the virus are atypical—considering a country's population size, economic, social and environmental resilience. Since the mask mandate announced by the Singapore Government on April 14th 2020, I've worn approximately 180 different masks. While it is a convoluted task to pair my favourite floral shirt with a surgical mask, I found myself prioritising both safety and sustainability over fashion–– it is okay if my mask is not analogous to my shirt like I prefer it to be. Singaporeans were quick to jump on the opportunity to tap onto this profitable industry — masks are still selling like hotcakes. Now, we are spoilt for options, making it easier for my 3-year-old niece to parade her favourite Disney Princesses around her cheeks.


Singapore's painstaking efforts to keep its citizens safe are pronounced.


Singapore introduced four nationwide exercises to distribute reusable masks while spending SGD $13.8 million on developing and acquiring digital contact tracing tools. Its exhaustive efforts prove efficacious as the national contact tracing programme, TraceTogether, hits 70% of its target of residence, bagging an international innovation award. Although most recently, Singapore's government came under harsh criticism for breaching the public's trust. The contact tracing app's data gives legal precedence to the police, under the Criminal Procedure Code (CPC), to assist in criminal investigations–– which is a stark difference to its primary purpose, contact tracing.

Apartment Cafe plastering a public message for their coffee enthusiasts supported with Safe-Entry

Qr Code. Photo: Ian Dan Mari


On top of the government's persuasion, private enterprises are taking a more visual and individualistic way to battle the virus on their own respective turf; Businesses are equipping themselves with design tools to encourage patrons to practise caution. Littered across Singapore Changi Airport are bright orange stickers with analogous-coloured words: "Please Queue Here" & "Keep 1 Meter Apart" strung along the circumference. Similarly, on Funan Mall floors, you'll find "Keeping You Safe" enshrined within a orange circle with an outline of a different hue. Now, I find myself looking down on the floor more often than I should–– reading the different slogans paired with its illustrated icons— which often includes a shoe print.


This form of public service announcement may be ephemeral but effective nonetheless. It is a breath of fresh air to see these organizations taking it to the streets to promote caution instead of relying solely on digital messages that fit the breath of their brand guidelines. With an effortless use of colours paired with a riveting slogan, it marvels me how a dismissable print on the floor can be so powerful— influencing behavioural changes and, in turn, the way we live.

Cotton On holding a sign outside their store for crowd-control. Adopting a pixelized art style to speak to their broad category of demographic/ Suntec City, 3 Temasek Blvd Photo: Ian Dan Mari


36 years of Aids Awareness


This isn't the first time private organizations have used design to champion action during a pandemic. In a contentious battle against the HIV/AIDS–– rampant in the 1980s–– the AIDS Coalition to Unleash Power (more commonly known as ACT UP), an advocacy group, led demonstrations on the street while adopting the central visual symbol of AIDS activism. On the heels of Larry Kramer's speech at the LGBT Centre in Greenwich Village in 1987, other AIDS activists flooded New York City streets with the iconic poster designed by Avram Finkelstein, Brian Howard, Oliver Johnston, Charles Kreloff, Chris Lione, and Jorge Socarrás. The poster, created by these founders of ACT UP, graduates of different art schools, featured a soft pink triangle— a distinct reference to Nazi Persecution of LGBTQ people in 1930s and 1940s.

ACT UP (Aids Coalition to Unleash Power) protest at the Gay and Lesbian Pride March, New York City, June 1988. Photo: The New York Historical Society. Photo: Allan Tannenbaum / Getty Images

ACT UP protest, New York City, June 1994. Photo: Allan Tannenbaum / Getty Images


This wasn't just a symbol of activism, it was a political statement— mobilizing an entire marginalized group of people to the streets. The AIDS pandemic lived to see several iconic posters that are now considered modern masterpieces. These posters adopted different art styles, slogan and mediums but bound by a central message. Taking a comedic approach, the appropriation of Michelangelo's statue was borderline pornographic–– an image of the statue from the neck down with a copy plastered below the genital, a visual guide to the slogan–– "Under Cover. Play It Safe–– Use condoms'. Similarly, a printed advertisement by the State of California AIDS Education Campaign —63.5 x 48.5cm long depicts 'True Love' written in Serif with a piece of condom cleverly replacing the letter 'o'.


Plagues seeding harmful rhetoric

It is almost impossible to eliminate hysteria without acquiring the tools, language and sometimes humour to combat fear and misconceptions. I first learnt about the AIDS crisis through the term 'gay plague’—subtly suggesting that the virus exclusively affects sexually active gay men. Similarly, with the Covid 19 virus, first rampant in Wuhan China, President Donald Trump and his allies famously touted it as the 'Chinese Virus'.


This renaming of the coronavirus subtly implies a set of misconceptions and misinformation, which induces fear against the Chinese community. It is even more destructive now, in the age of social media, as politicians implicitly weaponize these derogatory eponyms to their large followings on Twitter. It sets precedence to demonize an innocent group of people. We see these long-lasting effects similar to the ones experienced by the LGBTQ community through the stigma that still burns fiercely today.


Although the Safety-Distancing campaigns do not share the same political fervour, they share the same urgency in influencing our everyday actions in response to a plague. Equipping businesses with the design language and tools is a first great step to create a more humanized approach to tackling the virus. Graphic Design has been pivotal in the war against a pandemic, almost iconic–– back in 1985–– and it proves its importance even more so now.



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