Applauses go and applauses come. Superman’s cape makes room for aseptic personal protective equipment and Thor’s hammer transmutes into a stethoscope. Sanitarians have become the new heroes of our society. For better and for worse. With all the consequences that this entails.
Words make up our world
Words, whether we like it or not, make sense of our world. Words help us to build the narrative around which our life revolves and, of course, social life too. Words help us build and destroy. They enrich us or limit us.
That is the reason why the Thought Police of the dystopian society that George Orwell imagined in his book “1984” persecuted with peculiar zeal the words and carefully watched over the good use of the Newspeak, whose “purpose was to limit the scope of thought and narrow the range of the mind.”
His book, some well know, is far from being a science fiction work. In the former USSR, those who showed special dedication or productivity in their work were called “work heroes”. The raise of those people to the level of heroes was not intended to increase their self-esteem but to motivate them to work even more and, hopefully, encourage others to follow their example, because absolute dedication to society was the only thing important and prioritarian. The maxim was to erase all traces of individuality.
For this reason – and for many other – we must be careful with the words we use. Because “From the bad or inept constitution of words arises a portentous obstruction of the mind”, as Francis Bacon said. And so applying the word hero to sanitarians can become a dangerous Damocles sword hanging menacingly over their heads.
Why shouldn’t we ask sanitarians to be heroes?
In popular imagination, the hero archetype refers to the person who stands out for having accomplished extraordinary feats that require a great deal of courage. The hero not only demonstrates great courage, but often sacrifices himself for the others without expecting any reward.
However, in a prepared nation that has clear its priorities and protects its workers, doctors should not be forced to take “heroic” actions. They should not be forced to expose themselves to contagion due to a lack of protective equipment. They should not be forced to work with plastic bags tied to the head and body. They shouldn’t be forced to make endless guards in extreme conditions that make them more prone to making mistakes. In short, they should not be forced to assume the role of heroes that we have imposed on them. And, of course, they shouldn’t die from all of that.
Calling them heroes, although it may seem like recognition, has also a negative side. That word can crush them under its weight. It can make them raise the level of self-demand to superhuman limits. It adds stress to them. And it adds enormous frustration when they cannot save lives.
Calling them heroes means putting all the responsibility on their shoulders while we wait for them to rescue us. It involves asking them to immolate themselves for us. And all of this compounds the emotional damage they are already suffering. So deep down, we hurt them by making them our heroes.
In fact, most sanitarians don’t consider themselves heroes. Quite the contrary. And it is not an excess of humility, but of common sense. They just want to do their job professionally, without heroics. And while many welcome the applause on the balconies, a moment that unites us as a society and encourages us to move on, most want us to understand that the applause is a trap we have fallen into – or into which we we have slipped more or less unconsciously.
The trap behind heroism
The applause and all the heroic discourse that has been built around it is a trap, the trap of turning a group that is being the victim of tremendous injustice into heroes of the society. And it is a trick as old as power: filling our eyes with tears so that they flood the brain. Applauding excited to not think about why we have to applaud. And so, as we extol their work, we condemn them to bear additional weight.
While the photos of the applause fill the covers, we continue to close our eyes on the working and living conditions of many of those health workers who are forced to chain one precarious contract after another, with job instability stuck to their heels. Use-and-throw heroes, who right now are already being fired and relegated more and more to the queue of social importance, in a society with too short memory that does not pause long to reflect.
For this reason, there are more and more sanitarians raising their voices, because they do not consider themselves heroes or martyrs, but victims of a system that puts them in the difficult position of exposing their lives to save others. Our sanitarians are people who have been sent to war bare-chested and rifleless. People who admit to having seen “Things that have left me in shock, that I never want to see again, recorded on my retina; I have seen decisions that should never be made and for the first time in my entire career I have come out crying helplessly”, as a nurse said.
People who are having nightmares with what they are living and who even consider leaving work when everything is over. People who cannot find shelter in their home. That they cannot hug their children when they get home and sometimes they even have to endure the attacks and humiliations of those who consider them “plague-carriers”. And those people don’t want applause, they just want us to listen to them. When applauses stop, they want us to unite to change a system that turned them into victims.
Although perhaps, that’s too much to ask. Because we are not heroes either. But together, if we want, we could give them the place they deserve in our society.