Taiwan's CDC turns diseases into anime characters — including COVID-19 as a purple-haired hacker

Erin Donnelly
·4 min read
Taiwan's CDC tapped artists to create anime characters personifying various diseases and infections. (Photo: Courtesy of Taiwan CDC)
Taiwan's CDC tapped artists to create anime characters personifying various diseases and infections. (Photo: Courtesy of Taiwan CDC)

Taiwan’s Centers for Disease Control (CDC) has found an inventive way to capture the public’s attention and raise awareness about various maladies ranging from rubella to Lyme disease to, yes, the coronavirus: anime.

Eager to reach a younger audience “beyond the echo chamber” of its mostly middle-aged Facebook following, the CDC has since 2018 tapped artists to illustrate what it calls “personified disease characters” in a series of public health messages inspired by the Japanese manga series Cells at Work! as well as the K.R.T. Girls, anime mascots representing the mass transit system in Kaohsiung, Taiwan.

“It has always been a challenge to communicate with the general public about diseases as the topic is rather hard to follow,” a spokesperson from the CDC tells Yahoo Life, adding that the agency wanted to package the information in a “more friendly way.”

The "Syphilis" anime character. (Photo: Taiwan CDC)
The "Syphilis" anime character. (Photo: Taiwan CDC)

What does that look like, exactly? Since the November 2018 launch, 26 anime characters designed by artists including Say HANa, ALOKI and Amatiz have been released. While there are a few children in the mix — a doll-clutching child representing enterovirus, of which youngsters are most at risk, for example — the majority are adults striking sinister or even seductive poses. Case in point: “Plague,” presented as a female Grim Reaper spilling out of a black corset and wearing a hat lined with the beaked masks of medieval plague doctors. “Ebola” sports a winged red latex suit cut to the navel, while “Syphilis” is a garter-wearing shepherdess in a nod to the stricken shepherd boy named Syphilus in the 1530 Girolamo Fracasatoro poem which gave the sexually transmitted virus its name. (Each character comes with a profile explaining the visual references, such as the red “sores” dotting Syphilis’s blouse, tying them to their respective ailments.)

Unsurprisingly, the pandemic has provided plenty of inspiration for the CDC’s 2021 calendar, images of which have gone viral. The latest edition features 13 new disease characters, including “COVID-19” — which Taiwan CDC’s spokesperson says was “the most difficult to conceive and design” because so little was known about its origin or characteristics. Ultimately, it was decided that that mysterious aspect would help define the character, presented as a purple-haired hacked and drawn by the artist Amatiz.

The 2021 digital calendar includes this coronavirus character. (Photo: Taiwan CDC)
The 2021 digital calendar includes this coronavirus character. (Photo: Taiwan CDC)

“We didn’t settle on a rather concrete profile with the artist until mid-2020,” the spokesperson tells Yahoo Life. “It was agreed to present COVID-19 as an international hacker with undefined facial features, height, weight and gender. The character would wear an outfit featuring mixed materials and irregular cuts that symbolize the substantial unknowns and uncertainties about this disease, and a gold crown-mask concealing the facial features that implies that COVID-19 is caused by a coronavirus. The character would be leaning against a cushion that resembles a coronavirus, with black arms sticking out like spike proteins on the outer envelope. The screens of the laptops held by some of the arms would show that the character is hacking into others' systems and suggest that the virus is entering into the host cells and would eventually infect them by endocytosis.”

This year’s calendar also introduces Jian Yi, aka “quarantine boy,” pictured on an airport runway to signify that he’s “guarding the country and blocking the entry of infectious diseases.”

Jian Yi, Taiwan CDC's "quarantine boy." (Photo: Taiwan CDC)
Jian Yi, Taiwan CDC's "quarantine boy." (Photo: Taiwan CDC)

While much remains uncertain about how the pandemic will play out, it’s clear that the CDC’s anime gamble has paid off. Its spokesperson says the characters are responsible for a surge in social media growth, with 3,000 pre-orders coming in for the 2021 calendar alone.

“We have received many messages on our fan page, admitting that they had known little about many of the infectious diseases they learned from the campaign,” the spokesperson says.

For the latest coronavirus news and updates, follow along at https://news.yahoo.com/coronavirus. According to experts, people over 60 and those who are immunocompromised continue to be the most at risk. If you have questions, please reference the CDC’s and WHO’s resource guides.

Read more from Yahoo Life:

Want lifestyle and wellness news delivered to your inbox? Sign up here for Yahoo Life’s newsletter.