MSUToday
Published: May 1, 2020

Scientific Animations Without Borders ‘goes Hollywood' for myth-busting COVID-19 animation

Contact(s): Janet Fierro fierroja@msu.edu, Caroline Brooks Communications and Brand Strategy office: 517-432-0920 brooks78@msu.edu

Scientific Animations Without Borders – or, SAWBO – a Michigan State University-based program, partnered with Hollywood animator Neal Sternecky to produce an educational COVID-19 video for distribution in Nigeria.

“There are many myths floating around about COVID-19 that are counterproductive to general health and well-being, which can, in fact, do a lot of harm,” said Julia Bello-Bravo, SAWBO co-founder and assistant professor in MSU’s College of Agriculture and Natural Resources. “We knew we needed to react quickly to provide evidence-based material for wide broadcast.”

Collaborating with MSU and Sternecky are Nigerian television station AREWA24, the United Nations Office for the Coordination of Humanitarian Affairs in Nigeria – or, UN OCHA – and the Nigeria Humanitarian Communications Working Group, in support of the Nigeria Centre for Disease Control.

AREWA24 – which broadcasts to over 38 million people in Sub-Sharan Africa in their native Hausa language – and the Nigeria Humanitarian Communications Working Group, chaired by UN OCHA, asked SAWBO to develop a myth-busting animation to address rampant misinformation on the coronavirus being spread throughout Nigeria.

“It is more crucial than ever to provide vulnerable people, particularly in conflict-affected north-east Nigeria, with accurate, timely and reliable information to prevent the spread of COVID-19 in areas that are already facing humanitarian crises,” said Eve Sabbagh, head of Public Information at UN OCHA Nigeria. “Addressing misinformation, such as the popular belief that ginger and garlic could cure COVID-19, with engaging and informative animations can help protect those who need it the most.”

This is the second COVID-19 SAWBO release, closely following Protecting Yourself from Coronavirus – a collaboration with MSU’s Residental College in the Arts and Humanities. For its second release, SAWBO sought expertise from its vast network of professionals, and the response from the Hollywood animation community struck a chord.

Heeding the call was Neal Sternecky, longstanding supporter of SAWBO and animator of such Hollywood productions as Space Jam, Tom and Jerry and Animaniacs, among other notable animated films and series. Over the years, Sternecky has volunteered his expertise working with SAWBO animators to help improve their craft.

“I first found out about SAWBO when it was at the University of Illinois. As an alumnus of the institution, I was excited to hear about the mission of the program,” Sternecky said. “I began working with SAWBO creators and was impressed with their passion, talent and vision. Their animations help many communities around the world, and I am delighted to be part of the team having such a positive impact.”

“While at University of Illinois, I taught an international development course using SAWBO as a model system and we also trained students in the SAWBO laboratory,” Bello-Bravo said. “Neal engaged our students in virtual space, provided them with a unique opportunity to interact with successful and experienced alumni, and gave them a profoundly unique educational experience.”

After releasing the first COVID19 animation, Sternecky contacted MSU, asking how he might be able to lend his talent to a meaningful cause.

“In addition to mentoring students in the lab, he had assisted with the production of previous animations,” said Barry Pittendrigh, co-founder of SAWBO and MSU Foundation Professor. “We gladly welcomed Neal back to the team and he was a big part of making this animation a reality in such a short period of time.”

In just over two weeks, Sternecky worked with SAWBO’s team of animators – all fellow University of Illinois alumni – to create the new myth-busting COVD-19 animation for Nigeria.

In the interest of reaching a global audience, SAWBO plans to translate the video into other language variants; its first animation is currently available in 30 languages with more added daily. These animations will be added to SAWBO’s library of nearly 100 educational animations available in over 145 languages.

“This virus affects vulnerable populations who have limited access to information and resources especially hard. We’ve seen how this medium can reach across cultures, borders and literacy levels to effectively empower people,” said Stephen Esquith, Residential College of Arts and Humanities dean. “SAWBO epitomizes the kind of innovative community engagement work that we value in the arts and humanities. It has provided our students with new learning opportunities and we look forward to further collaboration.”