Student Blogs III: Historical Parallels

This contribution belongs to a series of student blogs written as part of a seminar offered by EHC staff as part of our Research Master’s Environmental Humanities specialization. This year, this seminar was devoted to the Corona pandemic.

Coronavirus Propaganda Posters

Daan Jansen, RMA Global History (VU)

Shortly after the Dutch government decided to shut down schools, restaurants, and sports clubs on the 15th of March, a reddit-user known by the handle “Pjoot” began posting edited propaganda posters from the first half of the 20th century. He changed the message of these posters to fit both government recommendations and public sentiment regarding behaviour under the Coronavirus. The posters can be seen here. These posters became very popular on the “The Netherlands” subforum, a general interest discussion forum for Dutch users visited by over 285,000 people.

While humoristic in intent, the posters point towards a desire to relate the Coronavirus crisis to earlier crises, such as the Second World War, in order to contextualize it. Then, as now, the government used posters to communicate important information to its citizens, as well as to inspire action or sway opinions. Interestingly, propaganda posters from the first half of the 20th century tend to be considered misleading or hyperbolic. For example, the (American) poster this image is based on was originally captioned “When you ride alone, you ride with Hitler” – intended to stimulate carpooling to save fuel. Obviously, few people who drove their cars alone, or drove at all, in the United States, supported the German National Socialist party. However, the new poster is less hyperbolic because transmission of the Coronavirus does become more likely when travelling in groups.

The posters all portray the coronavirus as an enemy, and people who do not act reasonably (hoarding toilet paper, going outside needlessly) as idiots, traitors, or even murderers. While the virus is portrayed as an enemy, Pjoot avoids anthropomorphizing it. Instead, the focus is placed on the public and how it reacts. The virus remains a threat looming in the background. Some posters focus specifically on ‘shaming’ those who behave improperly, while others inspire people to behave properly. In keeping with the ideals espoused by propaganda at the time, several of his posters also emphasize solidarity and connectedness despite social distancing. These posters being posted online, helping their spread among those staying at home, stimulates this idea of remaining connected with fellow Dutch people despite physical separation.


The Use of Masks

Silja Koskimies, MA Design Cultures (VU)

During the last month I have paid attention to the masks which seem to bear many meanings in relation to the virus. First, the masks sold out in apothecaries. When the situation really struck, some people started using scarves as masks. Now masks in different designs are being sold in clothing repair shops, people are sewing masks themselves and also some fashion brands have started to sell masks (the examples I have seen are from ‘sustainable fashion’ brands). Anyway, most of the people do not use the masks. Also, the authorities have varying instructions about the use of masks in different countries and even scientists and health organizations have differing opinions whether citizens should use them or not in public. WHO adjusted their instructions of the mask use two weeks ago. As an object, masks are effective if used right, and in the healthcare they are obviously crucial. However, in public the masks have also symbolical meanings.

Nancy Tomes writes about different means of ‘Managing the Masses During the 1918-1919 Influenza Pandemic’. The article has many confluences to today’s situation starting from differing opinions about actual effectiveness of the masks. Nevertheless, Tomes writes that at that time masks were also seen “as an emblem of public spiritedness and discipline”. This reminds of the sustainable brands that are now marketing their masks. During the Spanish influenza, the newspapers carried instructions on how to make and launder masks. Now patterns for masks are shared also in internet. Women volunteers started to make masks for soldiers while “fashionable women made theirs of chiffon”. Differently styled masks are available today as well. Masks, regardless their effectiveness, can offer a sense of safety, communicate responsibility and in the same time act as an accessory. To use mask in a way that would be actual help, requires carefulness that most of the people do not probably follow. As Nancy Tomes concludes, there are still lessons to learn, and the situation reminds a lot of that 100 years ago.

Bibliography:

Nancy Tomes, “”Destroyer and Teacher”: Managing the Masses During the 1918-1919 Influenza Pandemic.” Public Health Reports (Washington, D.C. : 1974) vol. 125 Suppl 3,(2010): 48-62.

https://www.who.int/emergencies/diseases/novel-coronavirus-2019/advice-for-public/when-and-how-to-use-masks [16 April 2020]

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