Heroes just for one day?

We could be heroes. Just for one day? The coronavirus pandemic raises questions about how we treat those we call heroes at the frontline of the crisis.

Doctors, nurses, care workers, retail staff, and so many more. All those who find themselves on the frontline of the coronavirus pandemic deserve our applause. They deserve so much more than our applause.

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How do we honour our heroes? Is heroism the most thankless calling?

“It doesn’t mean anything if we don’t take care of these people when it’s all over with. It has to be more than words this time. It can’t just be ‘you’re a hero’, and then walk the other way and pretend that there’s nothing else to do.”

These words are from a thought-provoking video by Joe Scott.* He explores his unease at how the word “hero” is applied to those workers who suddenly find themselves on the frontline of the coronavirus pandemic.

He worries that “hero” is being used as “a band-aid, a way of getting out of the difficult conversations that we need to be having.” He sees a repeating pattern of people being hailed as “heroes” during times of crisis, only to be forgotten or ignored when things return to normal:

“I keep seeing the same mistakes made, over and over and over again. I keep seeing the same promises broken, over and over and over again. I’ve seen soldiers labelled as ‘heroes’ and then ignored when they’re suffering. I’ve seen 9/11 responders being called ‘heroes’ and then never compensated or taken care of as their health started to fade. And now I’m seeing healthcare workers, grocery store employees called ‘heroes’ and it just feels hollow and insincere and cheap and lazy.”

Scott fears that they will receive the same treatment as all those people before them who were hailed as heroes, but just for one day.

To change their reality

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To the best of my awareness, the current crisis has seen the word “hero” applied for the first time to retail staff, delivery drivers and some other groups of workers. They do not necessarily have a choice about where they now find themselves.** And they almost certainly aren’t receiving financial compensation appropriate to what they are now being called on to do. Maja Gustafsson of the Resolution Foundation says:

“Women, young people and the low-paid are most likely to be bearing the biggest health and economic risks from the crisis, which has shone a spotlight on the vitality of work that has been undervalued and underpaid for far too long.”***

This situation needs to change. Ongoing, committed and concerted action is required, argues Doug Stephens in his Business of Fashion article On the Frontlines of Retail There Are No Heroes, Only Victims:

“Calling retail workers heroes does nothing to change their reality. But let me be perfectly clear. I am not suggesting that these people do not deserve our recognition, praise or concern. They most certainly do. But calling them heroes, does nothing to change their reality, any more than expressing ‘thoughts and prayers’ after another mass shooting does anything to amend gun laws.”

More than words this time

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How do we honour our heroes? All those who have risen to the challenge of the coronavirus pandemic frontline deserve our applause. They deserve so much more. I agree wholeheartedly with Joe Scott’s view that “it has to be more than words this time”. I want to see the goodwill that is so freely shown in Thursday evening applause for NHS workers sustained into momentum for change that will benefit everyone who is now on the coronavirus pandemic frontline in the long term.

For now, Joe Scott recommends some excellent actions to honour the frontline workers who are doing so much to help us through the coronavirus pandemic (whether they want to be there or not):

“Donate your time, donate your money and get involved in groups that are taking care of these frontline workers. If you know somebody that happens to be a nurse or a doctor or hospital staff, mow their lawn, bake them a pie. Just do something. But most of all, vote for politicians that will take care of them and not just use the word ‘hero’ as some kind of platitude.”

Amen. Heroes. Not just for one day.

FOOTNOTES

* I first gave Joe Scott’s TMI channel a try a few weeks back on my wife’s recommendation. She pointed out that he could almost be an American version of me, in terms of his outlook on the world and how he expresses it. I can see what she means.

** For example, the BBC reported this week: “Supermarket checkout supervisor Kay Timbrell has her own phrase for the dangers she faces from coronavirus: ‘I call it shop-worker roulette.'” And the Guardian recently quoted a Walmart customer service manager who said: “I’m 64 years old and according to the CDC, I should be staying home and practicing social distancing and in quarantine,” said a customer service manager, also in the midwest. “I can’t do that as I can’t afford to take off work unpaid.”

*** More from Maja Gustafsson on this topic here:

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