Russian mural

This is the fifth in a series of 16 posts offering an analysis of “Covid Codes” from a global perspective. SEMIOVOX has invited consulting semioticians from around the world to augment the Coronavirus-related meaning map whose lineaments we revealed here in a Spring 2020 series. We are grateful to our talented and generous colleagues, who are individually acknowledged in each series post that features their contributions.

The theme we’ll explore in this installment is: ADVANCED RESEARCH. In this series’ previous installment, we looked at one aspect (ULTRA-PRECISE) of the Scientist paradigm in the COVID-19 + Cough/Cold/Flu context. Here, we’ll look at the paradigm’s other major aspect: Breakthrough discoveries, cutting-edge exploration.

Here we’ll find depictions of scientific research and scientists that are more aspirational, dramatic, slightly romanticized than in the previous theme. In the series’ next installment, we’ll see even more exaggerated depictions — drawing on science fiction and fantasy tropes.

One of the two central concepts represented by the scientist paradigm, within the “COVID-19 response” space is the notion that scientific research works at the cutting edge of the known — making progress, new discoveries, inexorably advancing humankind’s abilities and powers. The scientist is depicted within this theme as an explorer, an inventor… they are peering into the future and bringing back game-changing technologies.

Our study suggests that the Advanced Research thematic space s brought to life by at least three “source codes” (signs): Cutting Edge, Scientist Hero, and Anti-Covid “Porn.”

Cutting Edge

The Cutting Edge source code’s norm (that is to say, its idea, value, higher-order benefit) can be described as follows: The latest scientific research, done with the most advanced of methods and equipment.

Visual cues of Cutting Edge include:

  • High-tech (but not quite sci-fi) laboratory settings, extremely sterile, gleaming, very little color except scientists’ masks, gloves, robes.
  • High contrast photo filters are much in evidence, adding to the effect of a streamlined lab environment without any speck of dust.
  • Silvery/icy colors are common.

Verbal cues of Cutting Edge include:

  • Super-efficient, relentless, progressive: “Every day our scientists are working hard to find ways to use our expertise and products to help the fight against the coronavirus.” (Bayer)
  • Fast-moving, exciting, progress being made: “Handicapping the most promising of 267 potential Coronavirus cures,” “Inside the race for a vaccine”; “Coronavirus research is moving at top speed”

This breathless tonality stops just short of the sort of thing we’d find in the Sci-Fi Needs thematic complex.

April 2020 story in Forbes Magazine (USA)

Scientist Hero

The Scientist Hero source code’s norm (that is to say, its idea, value, higher-order benefit) can be described as follows: Highly idealistic, even romantic depiction of scientists working to save us.

Visual cues of Scientist Hero include:

  • Scientists depicted in heroic poses, as though posing for statues.
  • Scientists juxtaposed with cartoonish, exaggerated images of the Coronavirus.

Verbal cues of Scientist Hero include:

  • Grateful, almost worshipful tonality in discussing scientists. “The Rising Heroes of the Coronavirus Era? Nations’ Top Scientists.”
Modern Healthcare (US) illustration
“Vaccinations against Covid-19” (Poland)

Paulina Goch-Kenawy (Poland) shares this example of the white coated figure (doctor? scientist?) who seems to be carrying a syringe of vaccine like a shoulder-mounted bazooka.

Russian mural

Daria Arkhipova (Russia/Italy) writes: “For the Russian government, in order to maintain control over the population and make possible an obligatory vaccine program, it has become important to celebrate the scientists who have created Russia’s vaccine as larger than life heroes. The murals dedicated to this purpose often bear messages like “This city needs heroes.”


Maciej Biedziński (Poland) notes that national pride plays an important role in the depiction of scientists in the media: “Two Poles are seriously working out SARS-CoV-2.Will they make it?”

Portuguese scientist

Sónia Marques (Portugal), who sent the example shown above, also notes the excitement around any Portugal-specific scientific breakthroughs within this context.

Anti-Covid “Porn”

The Anti-Covid “Porn” source code’s norm (that is to say, its idea, value, higher-order benefit) can be described as follows: Glamorous, close-up, “sexy” images of scientific apparatus used against Covid.

Stock photo

Visual cues of Anti-Covid “Porn” include:

  • Scientists holding syringes and other small objects in front of their face
  • Aestheticized, almost decorative depictions of scientific apparatus
  • Scientific apparatus juxtaposed with cartoonish, exaggerated Coronavirus depictions

Verbal cues of Anti-Covid “Porn” include:

  • Breathless tonality describing breakthroughs

Sónia Marques (Portugal) shares this illustration from the newspaper Público. “What is known about the variant which was discovered in England.”

Atom-Protect mask (Argentina)

Ximena Tobi (Argentina) points us to the Atom Protect Mask, developed and manufactured by a medium-sized Argentine textile family business, in association with the National Council for Scientific and Technical Research. “The mask has become a source of national pride since it is unique developed in South America.”

Illustration from Spain’s RTVE broadcasting group.

Gabriela Pedranti (Argentina/Spain) submits the image above.

BBC website

A BBC illustration from a Portuguese-language story on Covid-19. Note that the image is not entirely realistic, but nor is it science-fictional; this is the sort of thing we’re describing as “Anti-Covid ‘Porn’.”

One last note on the Scientist paradigm. The scientist, as depicted in this context, works at the cutting-edge of treatment research — and yet, they’re more sober-sided and cautious, less given to making over-optimistic predictions, than the visionary. As we’ll see in the following installment, even though this theme is somewhat romanticized and overly dramatic, this sort of thing can be vastly more exaggerated than in the examples here.

Thank you for reading our Covid Codes series. Next week’s installment will be on this theme: SCI-FI NEEDS.


Tags: Coronavirus, Health & Wellness