By Jesse Robitaille
This is the second story in a three-part series highlighting COVID-19 philately. To read part one, click here.
Since mid-March, more than a dozen countries have issued COVID-19 stamps as commemorations, fundraising efforts and attempts to bring people together in a time of crisis.
While some of these stamps are official issues released by their respective country’s postal administration, many personalized stamps and much-maligned “wallpaper” stamps have also been produced in the past four months.
The official issues began on March 17, less than a week after the World Health Organization declared COVID-19 a pandemic, when Iran issued the world’s first COVID-19 stamp. It was followed by other official issues from Vietnam on March 31; Switzerland on April 5; the Isle of Man on May 4; Morocco on May 7; the United Arab Emirates (UAE) on May 10; China on May 11; Uruguay on May 13; New Zealand on May 20; Ukraine on May 29; Monaco on June 3; Bosnia and Herzegovina on June 9; Oman on June 14; the Czech Republic on June 23; Macau on June 24; and Taiwan on July 21.
“You can see that now the stamps are starting to come fast and furious,” said Toronto philatelist and award-winning exhibitor Jean Wang, who was the first person to win a Grand Award for a thematic exhibit at a Canadian national-level exhibition.
“Many countries are jumping on the bandwagon.”
The official issues generally fall into three areas, including:
- commemorations to thank and honour frontline workers;
- fundraisers to assist with healthcare costs and other pandemic-related financial issues such as unemployment; and
- messages of solidarity.
Entitled “National Heroes,” Iran’s stamp depicts a male doctor wearing a face mask and blue scrubs alongside other healthcare workers, a soldier wearing a gas mask and stylized images of the virus.
“Iran actually probably mismanaged the initial measures for dealing with the pandemic and was criticized, so this stamp might have been a way to get back on the good side of the medical people in that country,” said Wang, who added the Iranian government declared doctors and nurses who died during the pandemic as martyrs.
Vietnam followed suit at the end of the month with a two-stamp set entitled “Join Hands in COVID-19 Prevention and Control.” A 4,000-dong stamp (about 25 cents Cdn.) shows medical, military and security professionals as the “frontline fighters of the coronavirus outbreak,” according to Vietnam Post. A 15,000-dong issue (about 90 cents Cdn.) depicts Vietnamese doctors “with their supreme mission and great efforts to study to find out the best treatment methods to cure timely infected patients and the vaccine to fight COVID-19.”
“Vietnamese stamps are not very expensive, but they only printed 12,000 stamps, so I think they’re already sold out,” said Wang, who added some examples are available on eBay and Delcampe.
FIRST EUROPEAN ISSUE
The first COVID-19 stamp issued by a European country came from Switzerland’s Swiss Post on April 5.
Each of the 100-cent stamps includes a surcharge of 500 cents, the proceeds of which are being split between the Swiss Red Cross and Swiss Solidarity. Available in 10-stamp sheets, the design symbolizes solidarity during the coronavirus pandemic with Switzerland at the centre and a rotating cross revealing a shining globe.
“This one’s interesting,” said Wang, who added the sheet has a face value of 60 francs (600 cents) but only costs consumers 50 francs. “All of that money went to the charities, and Swiss Post basically donated the 10 francs. So in essence, you were donating money to the charities, and in turn, Swiss Post gave you 10 stamps to send letters to 10 friends. I think that’s the first time that’s ever happened, where you actually spend less money than the face value of the stamp.”
ISLE OF MAN, MOROCCO & UAE
In early May, the Isle of Man Post Office issued an eight-stamp set entitled “Carry Us Through,” which it said “reflects the unique response of an Island population to the challenges brought by coronavirus.”
“They issued a set of regular gum stamps and also a set of ATM (automated teller machine) labels,” said Wang, who added part of the proceeds is going towards the Manx Solidarity Fund. “You’ll see a lot of different countries who do this.”
A few days after the Isle of Man issue, another fundraising example was released by Morocco’s Poste Maroc. A five-dirham surcharge (about $1.85 Cdn.) will go towards the country’s COVID-19 response fund.
“The stamp costs 3.75 (dirhams) plus five dirhams, and the five dirhams went to the special fund for management and response,” said Wang, who added the stamp’s design was the first to highlight a mail carrier as a frontline worker.
Soon after, another fundraising stamp was issued by the UAE with part of the proceeds going towards the Emirates Red Crescent humanitarian organization and Emirates Post’s COVID-19 fund to support its frontline postal workers.
“It’s interesting – UAE issues different kinds of souvenir sheets, but the denomination is actually not on the stamp itself but on the souvenir sheet,” said Wang, of the single-stamp 19-dirham sheet (about $7 Cdn.).
“You actually can’t take the stamp out of the souvenir sheet and use it by itself on an envelope; you have to use the entire souvenir sheet. That’s kind of a quirk of UAE – they often issue stamps and souvenir sheets like that.”
As early as mid-March, images of a supposed preliminary design from China Post began appearing on social media.
“There was great anticipation to see what China would do,” said Wang, who added China Post issued a single sought-after stamp following the first outbreak of severe acute respiratory syndrome in 2002-04. “You can find it on eBay, but it costs quite a lot of money.”
China’s initial COVID-19 design – a se-tenant layout – was quickly withdrawn before a second design appeared in April. It, too, was reconfigured before the third and final design, also se-tenant, was issued on May 11.
For the final design, a hammer and sickle symbol; a woman’s head covering; a person carrying a rifle; and other background images were removed. Also, a face mask design was improved; a man is shown looking at a computer screen rather than a microscope; an ambulance symbol was updated; a general prohibition sign (also known as a “no symbol”) was updated with “COVID-19” in the centre rather than a virus image; and a small heart perforation was added between the pair of stamps.
In addition to official issues, many personalized COVID-19 stamps have been designed and issued by individuals or groups.
In Canada, Trevor Ashman, of Medicine Hat, Alta., produced a design through Canada Post’s Picture Postage program.
“Trevor made stamps with a couple of different frames with an image of a medical worker and the coronavirus in the background,” said Wang, who added Ashman also produced a customized cachet to complement the stamp.
Other personalized stamps have been produced by members of stamp and coin club in Sarajevo, the capital of Bosnia and Herzegovina, plus others from Indonesia, Austria, Estonia and Spain.
“These may not be widely available because they’re usually printed off in limited runs,” added Wang.
Wang also referenced the glut of so-called “wallpaper issues.”
“I consider them sort of junk issues or wallpaper issues. Of course, I’m not going to tell anybody how to collect, but you should make informed decisions.”
Two philatelic agencies – Stamperija, based in Lithuania, and the Inter-Governmental Philatelic Corporation (IGPC), headquartered in New York – have contracts with postal administrations in many different countries, mostly in Africa, to produce stamps for the collector market.
“They’re sold direct to collectors, usually topical collectors,” said Wang, who added these stamps are “quite exploitive and really have nothing to do with the topic that they’re issuing on.”
“If you actually went to the country where the stamp is supposedly issued, you would not be able to find them. They’re never used on mail, and the countries for which they’re supposed to be issued don’t see all of this money.”
Widely considered a “money grab,” these stamps are also often expensive, Wang added.
“Many collectors would consider them wallpaper and not really collect them.”
One example – a “joint issue” from Sierra Leone, Central African Republic and Togo – relates to the pandemic through the lens of classic philately.
“They’ve just put different styles of face masks on the Penny Black,” said Wang, who questioned, “What does the Penny Black have to do with COVID-19?”
“I just find this ridiculous,” she added, referencing a stamp issued on a face mask through IGPC for Togo.
“If you want to spend your money, that’s fine, but for me, these would not be part of my collection.”
The series’ third and final story (‘Postmarks tell pandemic story,’ CSN Vol. 45 #8) explores cancels and other pandemic-themed postmarks.