Op-eds

Tower of Babel has clear message for COVID-19 world

  • Howard Feldman 2018
I’m not certain what to make of the famous story that appears towards the beginning of the book of Genesis. It tells of people who got together to build a tower that could ultimately reach G-d. Whether the intention was to challenge or to honour is unclear. Whether it was literal or a fable is equally opaque and equally unimportant for the lesson it might foretell. A lesson that is well worth contemplating in a 2020 COVID-19 world.
by HOWARD FELDMAN | Jul 16, 2020

In case you weren’t paying attention to that school lesson, the tale is rather simple. The people got together to build this tower that would reach the heavens. They were doing absolutely splendidly until, for some reason or another, they started to speak different languages.

At that point, their failure to communicate had a major impact, resulting in the whole thing pretty much falling apart. If one lacks imagination, I guess a reference to the Medupi Power Station could assist – if one ignores the corruption element that’s unique to the South African story.

It doesn’t take a biblical or literary scholar to make the connection to the link between clear communication and success. When people speak so that others can understand we are able to reach “amazing heights”. Without it, we will destroy what we have tried to build and render all our efforts useless.

COVID-19 requires us to communicate clearly. Governments need to have a unified message with little ambiguity. The medical fraternity has the responsibility to impart accurate and reliable information. And, finally, citizens need to make sure that they do their bit in not promulgating fake news just because they have a device that allows them to.

We started so well in South Africa. The transparent, straight-talking messages from President Cyril Ramaphosa garnered support that it’s unlikely the African National Congress has seen in years. Opposition parties stood behind him and contributed positively to the dialogue as much as they were able to.

But then, much like in the tale of Babel, language became confusion, intention and agendas were hidden, and the tower of trust began to crumble. Maybe it was the smoking ban. Maybe it was the funding. But either way, the more they spoke, the less we understood.

The responsibility doesn’t lie just with them. It sits with us as well. The passing on of dubious information, the repeating of stories that even our late grandmothers would recognise as being rubbish, the suggestion of improbable cures and prophylaxis, all add to the noise. It creates chaos and confusion around the essential communication, and in doing so, dilutes the message and information we need. While the pandemic peaks in South Africa, this is something we can ill afford.

Rabbi Lord Jonathan Sacks sees the Babel story as being one of responsibility and of arrogance. He sees it as a battle against the acceptance that there is something larger than us at play. This is striking in its relevance to the COVID-19 pandemic. It’s greater than the individual. It’s bigger than anything that most of us have seen in our lifetime, and probably greater than we ever will.

What it means is that we all have the responsibility to communicate clearly and hold those who don’t do so to account. Lest it all come crumbling down.

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