Why Confront COVID-19 with Cartoons and Humour?

May 1, 2020

     By Duncan Green     

Pablo Suarez discusses the role of humour in driving change, and introduces today’s Corona-cartoon Competition

Why cartoons in the midst of a pandemic?

Humor keeps us honest. It helps bridge the gap between what is and what could be.

The argument is simple: by overlooking reality, people and organizations often fail to anticipate and address risks, and humor helps to dissolve denial. Through a shared experience of humor,cartoons invite us to recognize reality as ridiculous, inexcusable, needing change. Once armed with that irrefutable awareness, it’s easier to reflect and discuss candidly what’s really going on, and what to do about it.

There are many insightful cartoons about COVID19 (don’t miss FP2P’s cartoon competition!). Countless cartoons, originally conceived for other reasons, become eerily relevant now. My favorite, by the celebrated cartoonist Bob Mankoff:

Bob Mankoff/CartoonCollections

This illustration conveys exactly how I see our COVID-19 situation: things change slowly… until they change abruptly. How could we be so unprepared? Will we finally start to collaborate intelligently and act courageously? The caption points to an infuriating issue: We’ve got to talk, but our interactions consist mostly of unidirectional statements…  We honk our messages, and then when nothing happens, we keep honking.

Drew Dernavich/CartoonCollections

We’re stuck in a system that is clogged, largely due to the predictable consequences of our own collective choices. Bureaucratic sclerosis has led to a crisis of the imagination.

We have to reimagine how we engage

As a researcher turned humanitarian worker, my job involves communicating risks. Initially, when I mostly talked science to people who could save lives, I was extremely good at putting them to sleep. Research shows that showing research doesn’t work. So I’ve been exploring different ways of engaging people with the complexity of future risks through serious fun.

Running sessions from rural Kenya to the White House and NASA, I have confirmed findings from analytically rigorous studies: the emergence of humor engenders bonding, enhances problem solving, and enables difficult conversations. When people are having a good time discussing serious stuff, humor carries hard truths into consciousness. Shift happens. So I joined forces with professional cartoonists: among many important things, we truly need humor to help us understand and address the pandemic – and cope.

Surely you must be skeptical. What does humor have to do with COVID-19?

Paul Bisca/CartoonCollections, created during a ‘cartoonathon’ on grief

You probably associate ‘humor’ with terms like laughter, fun, or jokes. No apparent overlap with the dead-serious work of managing risks in a pandemic… When I asked cartoonist Bob Mankoff what he thinks of when thinking about humor, he looked me in the eyes and said: Death. Seriously.

Remember his couple on the couch approaching the cliff?  Here’s what professional humorists think of, when thinking about humor: Risk, conflict, ambiguity, incongruity, danger. They develop an uncanny ability to notice what is unacceptable yet accepted, then create a parallel reality that sheds light on the contradictions, tensions, and general ridiculousness of our world.

Humor makes the strange familiar, and the familiar strange.

Cartoonathon!  Co-creating visual humor to confront risks

With worklife interactions now dominated by zzzZoom, too many videoconferences seem intentionally designed to strip us of emotion and candor, derailing the deep collaboration COVID-19 times call for.

We can, and must, do better.

One option: the “cartoonathon!” – a modality of interaction that engages participants in co-creating tools for risk communication. Working with Mankoff and team at, we are designing and delivering these innovative events in both face-to-face and fully virtual modalities, for organizations as diverse as the International Federation of Red Cross and Red Crescent Societies (IFRC), the World Bank, Northeastern University, and the BMW Foundation.

Here’s how our cartoonathons flow:

1. Warm-up: cartoon annotation

We begin with an unconventional activity: after a brief welcome, participants are invited to review about a dozen thought-provoking cartoons, curated to inspire rich discussions that feed into annotations about the event’s theme (see this blog, or my TEDx Talk).

The photo below shows H.E. Ms. Naheed Sarabi, Deputy Minister of Finance of the Government of Afghanistan, during the cartoonathon held at an event on crises and risk financing convened by the World Bank Disaster Risk Financing and Insurance Program. In the background, the Try Honking Again cartoon displays the annotation added by a participant: “Let’s create another project/program like the one we created years ago and which also failed”. Such level of candor in the presence of a senior government official illustrates a key fact:

Humor engenders trust – and change happens at the speed of trust.

2. Substance – with a humorist’s lens

Next, participants experience ‘serious’ presentations. Via live stream, two to six cartoon artists attentively listen in, presentations and breakout group reactions, all while sketching original drawings and captions in real time. They don’t aim to synthesize the presentations: instead, their cartoons challenge what was said and its implications. More than aiming to provoke laughter, the creations seek to inspire critical reflection & meaningful dialogue (though of course humor is welcome). 

For example, an Afghan government official requested support to “bring the government to the field, where disasters happen.” Participants nodded in acceptance. Yet one of the cartoon artists detected –and depicted– some underlying assumptions… Here is the draft – one of about twenty shared just moments later.

At first glance participants were confused (‘Huh?’), then smiled or even burst out in laughter (‘HaHa’), then came to an abrupt, useful realization (‘A-ha!’).

The prolific humorists delivered a set of mirrors depicting the gap between what is and what could be.

3. Reflections triggered by the co-creation process

In the final phase of a cartoonathon, participants critically examine the draft cartoons and suggest ways to make them clearer, better, and/or more useful. The final version below integrates participant suggestions for more Afghan-like mountains and failed crops around the bureaucrat’s desk to represent a field in times of crisis.

Having gone through this unconventional, bonding activity, participants discuss how the newly-created cartoons relate to their own experiences, triggering insights and proposals for next steps.

Kendra Allenby/CartoonCollections, created during a ‘cartoonathon’ on crises & risk financing

Cartoonathon topics so far have ranged from “Responsible leadership in COVID-19 times” to “Grief” to “Becoming virtually amazing”. Contributions by cartoon artists Drew Dernavich, Emily Flake, Kaamran Hafeez, Paul Bisca, Peter Kuper and Rebeka Ryvola can be found here.

From ‘failure of the imagination’ to humor-infused flow

Humor isn’t merely entertainment. It’s smart, strategic communication. And frankly, we need to get smarter, fast.

Otherwise, COVID-19 and other shocks and stressors will lead to the laughably predictable mistakes that FP2P has been highlighting for over a decade.Cartoons, and the collective process of cartoon creation and reflection, can harness the power of humor, taking us from darkness to spark illumination and transformative action. Martin Luther King said “we need creative laughter amid difficulties and tension.”

It turns out, fun is FUNctional.

And now, head on over to the FP2P Corona-Cartoon Competition and cast your votes!

Pablo Suarez blends research, humanitarian & development practice, and art & design, chiefly as associate director for research and innovation at the Red Cross Red Crescent Climate Centre, senior fellow at the Adrienne Arsht – Rockefeller Foundation Resilience Center, and artist in residence at the National University of Singapore (NUS-IPUR). Opinions expressed are solely his own and do not express the views or opinions of affiliated institutions.

Featured image: credit: Paul Bisca

May 1, 2020
Duncan Green