Humour helps us deal with anxiety and the current pandemic is a testament to that notion.

A global pandemic is no laughing matter…or is it? 

The coronavirus pandemic has changed our behaviour significantly and instilled fear in many, but it has also led to an outpouring of humour. 

Take for instance all the toilet-paper memes such as Jesus-multiplying-TP-rolls, or the video with the guy who cleans the New York Subway turnstile only to jump over it. Or the picture of a Bosnian Gastarbeiter (migrant worker) in Germany in his living room with a cement mixer "working-from-home" meme. Then there's the universal yelling-woman-cool-cat meme and all the Halal memes (with their equivalents from other religions). 

Some of the initial jokes poked fun at people and politicians taking the pandemic too lightly, laughing it off or chalking it up to some made-up internet fad. Most countries aimed jokes at their political leadership which could be classified under the 'emperor-has-no-clothes' category. 

The US with its terribly late response to corona, in the middle of an electoral campaign, quite naturally gravitated to jokes relating to US politics and the continuous absurdity of the American president, for instance, when he rated the response to the outbreak as a '10'. 

Some jokes reveal panic or mock panic. Most jokes, just like in Roberto Benini's Life is Wonderful, seem to be a way of coping with fear just as excessive hoarding or panic-buying is a way to handle anxiety. 

Many of us who have experienced war or been refugees have seen this before. A sign of authenticity in any creative endeavour that deals with catastrophes is that it can relate to a local sense of humour. The same holds true for the coronavirus pandemic.

The endless feed of jokes is revealing of our cultural make-up and how we are changing. As Swedes with multiple ethnic origins – Bosnian, Pakistani, Turkish, German, Kashmiri – and intimate experiences with many other cultures, we can recognise the styles of humour particular to those cultures we belong to. But we are also global subjects, like so many of us these days, and can see how humour has become more transnational. 

Some jokes are so local that they are untranslatable and we would need an essay for each to convey their meaning, but most of them, however local, are not terribly hard to get. In many ways, humour is becoming more and more 'born translated'. 

For instance, the following joke is entirely symptomatic of the culture of jealousy in the Balkans but translates across borders. It comes from the saying that Bosnians can forgive each other for anything except success: A man sees that his neighbour contracted the coronavirus and says, "Not fair, why did he get it and I didn't?" 

Let's take a look at a few examples from Bosnia, Sweden, Pakistan, Turkey, and the US to explore the similarities and differences.

In certain cultures, it's entirely commonplace for cut lines or to look for ways to skip waiting - which for us living in Sweden where the queue system is written in stone, is quite incredible. 

In Mahmutovic's hometown, decades after the war, they installed queue-number machines, but then people would jump over each other to get to the machines, and then, ignore the numbers, still cutting in line. 

Meanwhile, in Sweden, a typical meme is a picture of a bus with spaced out passengers with the caption: "In Sweden, we do not sit close to each other. We are best at avoiding company. This crisis was made for us."


While the memes and jokes during this pandemic are a direct satire of our local contexts, they have universal appeal. 

The image of the Bosnian Gastarbeiter (migrant worker) with a cement mixer in his home with the caption "working from home" refers to the fact that generations of Balkan people have sought luck in the German Paradise, but, although so many are now educated and have positions in all sectors of German society, the myth (and the reality) of the Gastarbeiter still returns to hard labour.

Just like the first wave of Balkan memes were ethnically charged, South Asian jokes and memes during the first week were directed towards 'others' and 'us'. South Asia often descends into Pakistan vs India, and so it stood for corona as well. 

One video circulating on the internet showed an unknown Indian leader claiming that donkeys travelling from Pakistan to China were eaten by the Chinese and brought the corona and the cure is to "go mutra" ('holy' urine from cows). 

The corona conspiracies in Pakistan were not any less absurd. Some of the memes stung local imams who in their sermons blame 'the kuffar' for everything, and this time they said corona was a punishment from God - and then they were themselves infected. 

As Pakistan shut schools and universities for three weeks, jokes about young teenaged and university girls crying for universities to re-open appeared because 'ammi' (mother) was making them do a huge amount of household work.

The Turks too involved stereotypes of mothers and grandmothers and made excessive jokes about the craze for cleanliness and how 'nene' (grandmothers) have their back by crocheting toilet rolls in this crazy world with mass toilet paper shortages.

One of the biggest challenges for the Turks was to be safe from 'abis' and 'ablas' kisses, hugs and handshakes! 

Speaking of handshakes, TRT World (Turkish Radio and Television Corporation) suggested using the Ertugrul style 'Eyvallah' gesture of putting the hand on the heart instead of the handshakes. And for us as well, no touching until the virus fades away or we kolonya it away, and we keep singing 'OpMe' ('don't kiss' referring to the Turkish hand-kissing tradition). 

Ertugrul's hand-on-the-heart greeting became a hit all over the world, but particularly in Sweden wherein the most recent elections, Muslims were highlighted negatively for some Muslims' practice that avoids shaking hands. 

Suddenly the Prime Minister's statement, "In Sweden, we shake hands", was out of vogue, and many Muslims, took advantage of Halal memes to fight that sort of Islamophobia. 

The toilet paper was predictably the butt of many 'Creeping Sharia' jokes given that practising Muslims clean themselves with water after a number two (be it bidet or the South Asian lota). 

The hallmark of many Bollywood classics, all those romantic scenes in which lovers touched one another with caution, are now apt reminders for these times of physical fasting. 

The Bollywood prescription for the pandemic from the 50s making rounds these days is "paas nahi ayiye haath na lagaiye, kijye nazara door door aey" (don't come near me, don't touch me, just look at me from afar!).

If these were too ethnically specific, even if translatable, the barrage of tweets for #socialdistancingpickuplines were born global: "I'm just a girl standing 6 feet away from a boy, asking him to maybe move back another foot. Thanks."

A breath of fresh air

Popular culture is always a treasure trove of hilarious characters whose transnational appeal is great even if not as interesting as the culturally specific ones: Chuck Norris slurping on corona; Scarface (Al Pacino) guarding a stash of toilet paper; Rocky (Silvester Stalone) has a fight in the supermarket, saying, "If the other customers don't kill me all this flour and sugar will"; Michelangelo's 'Hand of God' gives hand sanitiser to Adam; and Corona Lisa (Mona Lisa with a gas mask). 

All these memes show that corona has immediately become a part of popular culture. 

The legendary Shakespeare reportedly wrote some great dramas while quarantined and Newton discovered gravity in self-isolation while we overload Netflix servers!

Corona has pushed people to create crooner songs mocking life under quarantine. There's even a list on Spotify where people can add their corona songs.

Despite everything, people have been pointing out positive things that have happened in these few months because of the pandemic, like the improved air conditions and cleaner water and people increasingly expressing solidarity across social boundaries. 

Culturally specific memes can travel and cross borders successfully, and we are starting to understand, and relate to, what Pakistanis, Bosnians, Swedes or the Chinese find funny.

As we are finishing this article, more humour keeps popping up to help us fight our current common enemy: Covid-19. And we sure hope to be even better prepared for Covid-20, Covid-20 Pro and Covid-20 Lite coming this autumn in online stores near you. 

But above all, we pray that every other emergency – climate change, wars, refugee crises, recession, or natural disasters – will help us get closer to one another. And we all hope that a vaccine will soon force the virus to decide: 'To be or not to be!'

Disclaimer: The viewpoints expressed by the authors do not necessarily reflect the opinions, viewpoints and editorial policies of TRT World.

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