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The Pentecost miracle and the coronavirus curse

May 31, 2020

On the feast of Pentecost Christians commemorate the miracle of boundless communication, which gives people courage and enriches them. But in times of a coronavirus pandemic this can also be a curse, says Martin Muno.

25 participants in a Zoom video conference
Image: picture-alliance/dpa/W. Ring

When Christians celebrate Pentecost on Sunday, they commemorate an event in which the disciples of Jesus were moved by God to speak in foreign languages. According to the biblical story, people were shocked that every disciple could understand them in their native language. " All the believers were together and had everything in common," the Bible says of the miracle's consequence.

Today we seem very close to this Pentecostal miracle. Translation programs and artificial intelligence tear down language barriers, while the internet and social networks enable worldwide communication in real time. But do we form a global community and have everything in common?

We learn, we lie, we surf the net

The opposite seems true. The coronavirus pandemic has made profound contradictions apparent. What is truth? What is a lie? What is right? What is wrong? Seldom before have people around the globe been so dependent on credible information as they are now — but all too often this need is ignored, even trampled underfoot.

Read more: Coronavirus: How do I recognize a conspiracy theory?

Martin Muno
DW editor Martin Muno

There are several reasons for this. The first reason is that we are learning new things every day. At the beginning of the pandemic, washing hands was considered the best way to avoid infection, but today, doctors see only a slight danger of transmission via surface contact. For a long time, the overwhelming advice was that self-made face masks were not helpful. Today, many places have instituted mask-wearing requirements, to a greater or lesser degree. Even highly respected scientists have revoked statements — not because they lack intelligence or want to deceive the public, but simply because what is known has changed.

Read more: Scapegoats: Virologists face death threats during coronavirus crisis

The second reason is the populists and ideologists. It is telling that the four countries with the highest infection rates — the US, Brazil, Russia and the UK — are all governed by populist politicians.

At the forefront lies the United States, with President Donald Trump, whose madness in the face of the coronavirus crisis is beyond imagination. But Brazil's Jair Bolsonaro, Russia's Vladimir Putin and the UK's Boris Johnson are also politicians who subordinate everything to their retention of power — even the health and lives of their citizens. All of them bend the truth. And then there is the outrageous nonsense spread by conspiracy theorists, especially via social networks.

Pandemic meets internet

That brings us to the third reason — and to the modern Pentecost miracle: For the first time in human history, a pandemic has met a globally networked public. Within seconds, a previously unknown amount of information reaches our computers and smartphones. This is information that our health may depend on but whose truthfulness we often cannot assess. And that makes many people feel insecure. In contrast to the people mentioned in the Bible, we do not want to believe. We want to know because our behavior depends on our knowledge, and the spread of the virus depends on our behavior. It is a triad of knowing, wanting and doing.

Are women the better crisis managers?

It's an unchangeable fact that what we know will change. But the order of the day must be to contain and uncover the masses of lies and conspiracies brought into the public sphere. Journalists have long had the very specific task of fact-checking. But this is also a must for social media companies.

Read more: How does Twitter's tweet labeling work?

It is good news that Twitter recently added an advisory label to a false statement made by the US president. Perhaps Trump's otherwise legally dubious and completely exaggerated vendetta against Twitter will lead to social media, including the incomparably more powerful networks Facebook and YouTube, being more consistently cleansed of lies and false statements. For when a pandemic encounters propaganda, people suffer and die as a result. Then a miracle becomes a curse.

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Martin Muno
Martin Muno Digital immigrant, interested in questions of populism and political power