Risk communication is crucial in a pandemic. In Mexico, a new superhero has been invented to encourage the whole population to respect the rules of social distancing. The cartoon character SuSana Distancia is a good example of successful risk communication.
Mexico, like many other countries, is mostly in lockdown these days. From March 23rd to April 20th, schools, universities, countless businesses and public places will remain closed. The government is strongly recommending measures of social distancing (at least 1.5 metres) and voluntary self-quarantine. As of March 23, there are only 316 confirmed cases of the coronavirus in Mexico, although the actual number might be much higher. Still, Mexico’s health authorities were relatively quick to announce strict measures – compared to other countries like Italy or Germany, where case numbers had to reach 1,000 or more before official recommendations were published.
The swine flu in 2009 seems to be one of the reasons why Mexico is more prudent in dealing with the highly contagious virus. Eleven years ago, the country’s swine-flu strategy was crucial in stopping the global spread of the H1N1 virus by cracking down with strict measures such as closing almost every business and quarantining citizens.
Mexico City in particular is a high-risk area for pandemics due to its high population number and density. The mix of very different people in the country’s capital poses the question: How to communicate the dangers and necessary measures in the face of coronavirus in a largely informal, poorly educated environment?
Mexican health authorities have been creative in their communication in the past, publishing videos, memes and shareable images to spread the message of their respective campaign.
Crucially, health authorities in Mexico seem to understand how to really get through to citizens across all population and age groups. Apart from official measures against the coronavirus, the Ministry of Health has recently come up with a superhero character called SuSana Distancia. This is a wordplay on “a healthy distance” (mantengan su sana distancia). The superhero character is present on social media, most notably on Twitter. The account was only started on May 20th, but already has almost 30,000 followers. SuSana advocates to keep a distance of 1.5 metres between persons. She also contributes a lot of creative ideas on how to make the most of self-quarantining at home.
Mexican health authorities have understood that risk communication always has to be adapted to local context so that the message really reaches as many people as possible. In Mexico, memes and Twitter trends are very important ways of communicating. The country already has an array of superheroes:
• Dr. Simi (representing a pharmacy)
• Mama Lucha (representing a supermarket)
• El Peatonito (representing pedestrian rights)
All of these heroes are designed to market certain brands or messages. They are all widely known as some kind of “Mexican Avengers”. This kind of humour in combination with superheroes’ popularity and potential for creating memes taps in perfectly with the Mexican way of communicating.
While not everyone in Mexico can afford to stay at home or has the opportunity to work from home, SuSana is helping the spread the message of the importance of social distancing. Even the many street vendours and informal workers in Mexico are engaged by SuSana. They share memes, use the hashtag #susanadistancia and widely follow and spread the superhero’s advice in terms of hygiene and a healthy distance. While there is much more to be done in Mexico to stop the spread of the virus, the funny, engaging and well-communicated SuSana Distancia character exemplifies successful risk communication that is perfect for the local context.