Object of the Month: August 2020

Filip Heyduk, “Thanks to Rescue Corps and All Volunteers,” Czech Post, 2020. NML Medical Museum Visual Art Collection, 332-2020.

Object of the Month: August 2020

The COVID-19 Pandemic on A Postage Stamp


The COVID-19 pandemic and the joint effort of both health professionals and laypeople to stop the spread of the virus and protect others and themselves soon found depiction on postage stamps. Stamps – just like statues in the space of a city – belong to highly public art: expressing the intent of the artist and widely shared concerns, hopes and fears, they cannot but reflect the actual and long-term interests of states and public authorities as well. COVID postage stamps are no exception.

First designs of COVID-themed postage stamps, created in China, became public at the beginning of March: they did not pass the approval process and in a revised version were printed only on May 11. Probably the first COVID postage stamps was then published in Iran on March 17, 2020, under the partly English title National Heroes: on the Front Lines Against the Coronavirus. The drawing by Alireza Zakeri (b. 1968) depicts three health workers and, as well as a soldier in protective gear: the figures of doctors or nurses in white surgical clothes and masks, making the V- gesture of victory or peace, the soldier in black and white, straight from the front lines of the Iran-Iraq war, wearing a gas mask. Iran belongs among countries worst hit by the pandemic. Official sources long underestimated the number of cases, but even according to them, the number of infected people in Iran reached 350 000 in August, with at least 20000 victims.

On March 31, a pair of stamps thanking doctors and other professionals fighting the pandemic was published in Vietnam, a country known for its rapid, strict and effective preventive measures. Stamps in the values of 4 000 and 15 000 VND were designed by the painter Pham Trung Ha: one depicts physicians, rescue workers, soldiers and policemen testing and examining patients, the other shows a pair of doctors in protective suits and a clenched fist as sign of resolve in the background. Switzerland published, on April 6, a bloc of ten stamps in red and white, displaying the Swiss (but also the Red) cross in the center of a circle, the shape of the SARS CoV-2 virion, but also the shape of the world unified by its threat. In April, further official COVID stamps were issued also by the Isle of Man, Guernsey of Lichtenstein; in other countries, semi-official collectible editions appeared, supporting humanitarian organizations and helping professions.

Czech Post published a double stamp to appreciate the work of help and rescue corps and all those involved in fighting the coronavirus on May 23, 2020. The designer was Filip Heyduk (b. 1967) from the Heyduk, Musil & Strnad Graphic Design Studio in Prague. Most stamps reflecting the pandemic of COVID-19, whether figurative or symbolic in character, include the well-known image of the SARS CoV-2 virion, as it appears in electron microscopy, with the typical crown of spikes. Rather than the on virus itself, Heyduk’s design concentrates on the solidarity of people exposed to it and resisting, because such is their work and their calling or because they cannot act otherwise. Various helping professions are represented by face masks: rather than official symbols, the author chose shapes through which we encounter or envision them in everyday life, the blue and yellow stripes of police cars or reflex vests, the post horn, a red cross, a flame on the red background of a fire truck, the military camouflage fabric. A mask with the pattern of colorful spots is placed in the center of the stamps: it standing for the corps which included everyone at one time: all those who sew face masks at home, on sowing machines or with needle and threat, the diversity and the unity of people, sharing a fear and a purpose.

The NML Medical Museum visual art collection has come to include other COVID-related stamps. On two stamps issued in Greece on June 15, hands join in

assembling a puzzle under the „Thanks everyone“ slogan, while a man stands on a ladder leaning against the wall of (his) house, with the commentary „We stayed home and won.“ The Slovak stamp, designed by Karol Felix (b. 1961) and published on August 21, depicts a woman’s face half-covered with a mask and a stylized drawing of the coronavirus. The Sběratel collectors’ fair – cancelled in March due to the COVID emergency measures – published a complementary coupon accompanying the stamp titled Temptation, created by Vladimír Suchánek (b. 1933 ). The coupon and the postcard portray a sowing machine, celebrating all the machines and their „artful owners“that helped defeat the disease in the early months of 2020.

The COVID-19 pandemic soon exceeded all national and regional borders. International organizations played an important role in fighting the coronavirus. On August 11, a set of six postage stamps designed by Rorie Katz was published by the United Nations for the World Health Organization: the stamp uses pictograms for six public health messages – personal hygiene, physical distancing, recognizing symptoms, myth-busting, kindness to others and solidarity – as well as a drawing of a health worker with a face masks inscribed by the word „thank you“ in dozens of languages and the words „We are all in this together: Help stop the spread of COVID-19.“

Medicine and health care on postage stamps long preceded the current pandemic. Most often, stamps portray famous men – and very rarely, women – of the history of medicine. During the last 100 years, other medical themes appeared on stamps as well: stamps supported public health projects of preventing and fighting diseases such as tuberculosis, cancer or AIDS (and COVID-19), commemorated important hospitals, medical congresses, changes in healthcare systems or health professions as such with nameless faces of physicians or nurses. The Medical Museum web pages will continue to present other objects from its small, but focused philately and philumeny collection in the future. Hopefully, the selection will no longer be forced by an external emergency.