Illustrating or even anthropomorphizing something as intangible as a virus can help convey critical information to the public about safety and health. But in the past doing so has also stoked racism and xenophobia, Jared Gardner '87, an English professor at The Ohio State University interested in medical humanities and cartoons, told NPR recently.
"A lot of the early anthropomorphizations are less about disease and more about pain, like little dogs biting our feet for gout, for example,” he said.
However, “racism and xenophobia are deep in the genome of comics and cartooning," he told NPR’s Neda Ulaby. During the great flu pandemic of 1918, which was erroneously believed to come from Spain was portrayed as “a mosquito dressed up in a kind of toreador's cape, with what the cartoonist is imagining as a Spanish hat," Gardner said.
He noted that some cartoonists early in the COVID-19 epidemic used problematic images such as the octopus to stand in for China. This particular image hearkens back to those used by Nazi cartoonists to represent Jews back in the 1920s and '30s.
"It's often represented as a figure for an insidious foreign invader working its way into every element of society," Gardner said. Thankfully, “they're backing away from that kind of imagery. The initial xenophobia you saw in some mainstream cartooning has disappeared,” he said.