The art of getting the Covid-19 message across

By Samantha Coomber   December 27, 2020 | 05:03 pm PT
Vietnam’s vintage propaganda art enjoys a new lease of life amid the coronavirus pandemic.
Samantha Coomber

Samantha Coomber

I have always found Vietnam’s iconic propaganda art posters mesmerizing. They are gallery-quality works of art for the masses, plastered on billboards and walls across the nation.

Closely intertwined with Vietnam’s momentous rise, propaganda art has imprinted itself on the psyches of Vietnamese.

This unique and striking art form was developed from around the 1940s as a super-effective tool for communicating key social, political, economic, and cultural messages from the government or local authorities.

Propaganda art has covered everything from nationalist struggles to harnessing the country’s industrial and agricultural potential in the 21st century economic boom, and has been pivotal in boosting the nation’s patriotic spirit and morale, especially during times of war.

Hand-painted in graphic style with colors, light and shapes bolder than the norm, propaganda posters convey a strong image designed to be precise, symbolic and simplistic.

With straightforward and concise slogans or information splashed across the images, the message is communicated easily and directly. All it takes is a quick glance from the street or the back of a whizzing motorbike sufficing.

Today, in a nation at peace and modernizing at breakneck speed, propaganda art posters have seemingly dwindled somewhat and lost their stature of bygone times.

Yet, rather than being consigned to art museums or regarded as nostalgic pop-ups, this vintage-style imagery has adapted over the years and is still relevant and visible, be it on rice fields and mountain roads or gridlocked city streets.

A propaganda poster authored by the Health Department of Phu Nhuan District, HCMC, calls for couples to have two children. Photo by Samantha Coomber.

A propaganda poster authored by the Health Department of Phu Nhuan District, HCMC, calls for couples to have two children. Photo by Samantha Coomber.

It still plays an important sub-role informing the general public about the latest social-economic campaigns and state policies, anything from how to avoid malaria and HIV/AIDs and anti-drug messages to state-assisted education, family planning and the best crops for farmers to cultivate.

Propaganda art is also still a striking form of communication for reminding the public of historical national dates and victories – from reunification to the battle of Dien Bien Phu – or declaring, "Chuc Mung Nam Moi" (Happy New Year) at Tet.

And moving with the times, literally, posters in urban centers are increasingly displayed on elevated screens, even brought to life in digital video form.

The picture of health

So it comes as no surprise that Vietnam’s historical propaganda art has been given another lease of life in 2020 as the nation fights a new kind of war – the global coronavirus pandemic.

Vietnam’s well-documented Covid-19 plan of action and policies such as isolation of at-risk communities and extensive contract tracing have helped quash the coronavirus more effectively than most nations, that it has some of the world’s lowest number of recorded cases and deaths.

And like during other battles in decades past, propaganda art has been one of Vietnam’s secret weapons in its fight against one of its deadliest threats.

A poster on a street wall in HCMC calls people to stay united in fighting Covid-19. Photo by Samantha Coomber.

A poster on a street wall in HCMC calls people to "stay united in fighting Covid-19." Photo by Samantha Coomber.

Along with several other Covid-19-related art forms – from pop videos gone viral to postage stamps – propaganda art posters and related public service signs have helped rally Vietnam’s legendary communal efforts, patriotism and social responsibility during the pandemic, sparking an almost wartime-like spirit.

Propaganda art, so nostalgically familiar, remains relevant, albeit with modern interpretations, sending clear, colorful messages in the fight against Covid-19.

I learned that government authorities called on some of the nation’s premier artists and graphic designers, including some original ‘golden age’ propaganda artists, to submit painting designs for an urgently needed, new generation of striking posters.

I cannot read Vietnamese, but even I can see the imagery is informing us all to maintain those all-important Covid-19-era rituals – wear a mask, wash your hands and socially distance.

Some street posters are not strictly propaganda art-style but designed in a similar simplistic yet bold vein with almost childlike, cartoon-style images alongside a succinct sentence, thus conveying the same message but in a cuter and more fun way and more likely to attract the younger generations’ attention.

In other countries, especially back in my native U.K., Covid-19 public service announcements generally tend to be less creative and rather uninspiring with boring words and images on large blank signs.

Interestingly, as the months progressed and life bounced back to some kind of normalcy in HCMC (my base during the pandemic), there appeared to be less Covid-19-related posters visible on the streets.

Perhaps a sign literally that the Vietnamese "got the message across," and confirming the nation’s universally acclaimed success in fighting the pandemic.

*Samantha Coomber is a British freelance travel and lifestyle writer, who has lived in Vietnam for over 12-years and written about the country for 22 years. She has contributed to several Vietnam travel guidebooks and is the author of two Insight Guides on Hanoi & HCMC.

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