Mexico City: Superheroes spread the message

A new superhero character, conceived by the Mexican government, has gone viral (no pun intended) on Twitter over the weekend: SuSana Distancia. She is a fun cartoon character at first glance, but at the same time Laura Puttkamer sees her as a great example for successful risk communication in the times of Coronavirus.


“Mantengan su sana distancia” — keep a healthy distance is the Mexican way of asking for social distancing. In a highly social and interactive culture, it may be even harder to call for this kind of distance. How do you communicate the importance of this, and how do you reach all parts of the population?


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 such as Dr. Simi (representing a pharmacy), Mama Lucha (representing a supermarket) and El Peatonito (representing pedestrian rights), which are designed to market certain brands or messages. They are all widely known as some kind of 'Mexican Avengers'. This kind of humor in combination with the cultural popularity of superheroes and the potential for creating memes taps in perfectly with the Mexican way of communicating.


Image by SuSana Distancia (coronavirus.gob.mx)


That is why, on Mexican Twitter, the new superhero SuSana Distancia has been very successful. The Ministry of Health came up with the image of a woman in a bubble asking for a minimum of 1.5 meters distance between people in order to help stop the spread of Coronavirus. SuSana was only born on 20th March but already has 21,700 followers. On her Twitter account, SuSana gives advice and recommendations around the planned country-wide month of strict measures against the virus (Jornada de Sana Distancia) from 23rd March to 20th April.


While the government in Mexico has been very slow to even acknowledge the emergency the world is currently in, citizens have been much smarter. They remember the 2009 swine flu (AH1N1 virus) and already started social distancing and voluntary self-quarantine about one week ago. Although the number of infected Mexicans is still quite low — around 250 people on 22nd March, 2020 the number of unidentified patients might be much higher. Instead of succumbing to panic, though, Mexicans do what has to be done. They stay at home, try working from a home office and share memes of SuSana Distancia — even though the country is only at stage 1 of the pandemic. This suggests that Mexico is far ahead in its reaction to the Coronavirus.


Image by SuSana Distancia (coronavirus.gob.mx)

The World Health Organisation has already complimented the country on its way of dealing with the virus. Even before that, Mexican health authorities have been known for their down-to-earth and fun way of communication. They have published many videos and shareable images in the past, addressing issues such as how to wash your hands correctly and how to watch your physical health.


While not everyone 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 vendors 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, the funny, engaging and well-communicated SuSana Distancia character exemplifies successful risk communication.


This story was shared by Laura Puttkamer an urban journalist and facilitator, working through her organisation ParCitypatory, and currently based in Mexico City.


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