May 6, 2020 / Steven Lacey

Art as Public Health Communication During COVID-19

Image credit: Thomas Wimberly,

Public health practitioners are constantly challenged to reach members of our community where they are, rather than where we want them to be. A part of the solution is crafting stories, which claim the attention and sympathy of a wide range of people while still communicating essential health information.

During the flu pandemic of 1918, public health officials faced many of the same difficulties as we do today: inadequate medical supplies, fear of economic catastrophe, politicization of the disease, and a population suspicious of emergency restrictions. Many governmental and health leaders turned to art as a way to inform their fellow citizens on the dangers of the flu and provide clear information on ways to stay safe. Health-related artwork and public notices went up in towns and cities from San Francisco to New York. Drawing on propaganda-making experience learned during World War I, officials used memorable drawings and slogans like “Halt the epidemic! Stop spitting,” and “Coughs and Sneezes Spread Diseases - As Dangerous as Poison Gas Shells” to alert the public to the danger and provide a story of how to respond.

The use of art as a way of conveying medical information to others is not new. It’s no coincidence, for example, that the earliest anatomists were artists, nor that medical textbooks are filled with art in the form of diagrams and figures. Art can reduce an idea to its most basic elements, teaching the viewer in an impactful, lasting way. Perhaps art’s greatest power, however, is communicating important information across groups, and even across time. It’s eerie to look at the posters for the 1918 pandemic and see messages about social distancing, maintaining mental health in quarantine, and washing hands, that resonate today.

Although the world has changed fundamentally since 1918, despite technological advancement and the sophistication of modern communication networks, we still face the basic challenge of getting our message heard among the disorientation and disinformation that COVID-19 has brought. Because our challenges are the same, we can use art in the same way to reach out to every citizen in memorable and effective ways.

Amplifer, a design lab that builds art with the purpose of sharing the message of social causes, is one organization that has harnessed the power of art to tell a socially powerful story. The originators of the powerful “We the People'' campaign of artwork that challenged the political narrative in 2016, Amplifier is currently inspiring artists to rise to the challenge of getting good health information about the COVID-19 pandemic to the people who need it the most. Their Global Call for Art, issued at the beginning of this month, has already generated thousands of entries from artists across the world. The art is clever, positive, inspiring, and conveys the most vital information society needs to remain committed to the COVID-19 response. What is more, these images are free to download and use wherever they are needed.

As public health professionals, it can be difficult to connect with those outside of our discipline, who may not share our values or points of reference, when we publicize information about this pandemic. But now more than ever, we need everyone to have access to—and faith in—accurate public health information. Art can help bridge that gap, and thoughtful artwork with powerful health messages can sometimes bring about more social change than weeks of expert opinions in the news. That is why the Division of Public Health at the University of Utah has partnered with Amplifier to supplement our local and international efforts to keep citizens informed and safe.

Whatever challenges this pandemic has in store for us in the coming months, art will be a valuable tool in helping to maintain commitment to safety in our communities. I encourage you to make use of art as you do all the tools at your disposal.

Steven Lacey

Steven Lacey is a professor and Chief of the Division of Public Health at the University of Utah School of Medicine. A Certified Industrial Hygienist and Certified Safety Professional, Dr. Lacey is a past president and a fellow of the American Industrial Hygiene Association.


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