Century-old poster does not echo Covid-19 pandemic safety guidelines

·3 min read

Social media posts claim to show a public health poster from the 1918 Spanish Flu pandemic that echoes Covid-19 safety guidelines -- wear a mask, wash hands, keep a "safe distance" from others. But the image text has been altered; the original version was used in a 1919 Red Cross Christmas campaign to fight tuberculosis, and it did not contain such instructions.

The image on the poster shows three people, one a child, huddled together beneath a Christmas wreath as a man strains against a door to keep out a ghoulish white spirit. The words "the next to go" appear in red at the top.

"Wear a mask and wash your hands! Avoid touching your face. Maintain a safe distance from others," says the bottom of the poster, which appeared on Facebook on December 22, 2021.

Screenshot of a Facebook post, taken on January 4, 2022

"1918 SPANISH FLU PANDEMIC POSTER 102 YEARS AGO. STILL RELEVANT TODAY!" said another Facebook post with the image.

The posts come as the United States is experiencing "almost a vertical increase" in Covid-19 cases as the highly contagious Omicron variant sweeps the country following the holiday season.

Wearing a face mask, social distancing, and frequent hand washing are all measures recommended by the US Centers for Disease Control and Prevention to stop the spread of coronavirus.

A Google reverse image search yielded the same illustration as the social media posts, but with a different message.

The US National Library of Medicine website includes an archive of a poster with the same picture, titled: "The Next to Go: Fight Tuberculosis."

Rather than a call for masks and social distancing, the text below the illustration reads: "Fight Tuberculosis, Red Cross Christmas Seal Campaign."

Screenshot of an image on the US National Library of Medicine website, taken on January 3, 2022

The description for the print says: "This 1919 poster from the Red Cross promised that tuberculosis would be 'The Next to Go.' The illustration shows the protector of the family pushing the dreaded visitor out the door. "

The reverse image search also led to a result on the Philadelphia Museum of Art website. The print matches the one on the National Library of Medicine site.

In January 2021, AFP consulted with Margaret Huang, an archivist with the Philadelphia Museum of Art, to confirm the true poster message.

"Since it seems this was a mass-produced poster, there is not an original per se," she said, but the Philadelphia Museum has a copy, as do the Library of Congress, McKee Library, and the National Library of Medicine.

"All of them have the text that ours does," she said.

Indeed, the Red Cross website says the organization participated for 12 years in a Christmas program to fight the disease in the early 20th century, "raising more than $15 million to combat tuberculosis, one of the world's deadliest killers at the time."

AFP Fact Check has debunked more inaccurate claims related to the Covid-19 pandemic here.

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