Wednesday, April 15, 2020

The Abuse of "Heroes" and "Heroism" in the Age of Coronavirus (with 8 Images)

Death (or the threat of it) never takes a holiday: on Pasquetta day emergency responders in full hazmat suits transport a coronavirus patient to the hospital

I find it hard to title these images and hard to write about them without falling into clichés which, worse than being merely trite, seem not only misguided but misleading. 

Seeing medical professionals dressed like this, the inclination is to speak of them as working on the "front lines" of the coronavirus and praise them for their extraordinary bravery. But as true as such statements may be, I find that they're often used to forestall exactly the kind of discussion that really needs to occur among citizens and politicians of each country (or at least those countries which possess a functioning democracy) about the way that their own nation prepared for and is dealing with the crisis.

The personal bravery of medical professionals in this context is undeniable, but to focus only on that aspect of what they are doing is all too often to not talk about the important question of why even the wealthiest countries in the world should leave such medical professionals so ill-equipped to deal with a crisis about which epidemiologists have warned for at least two full decades (as a Washington Post columnist notes, a legendary epidemiologist told him in 1999 that in regards to such catastrophic global pandemics it was not a matter of "if" but of "when").

If one chooses to call this a pandemic a "war," it was not one which began with anything like a surprise attack. And in a country such as my native one of America, which has defined itself for decades by its massive (and massively expensive) military might and constant readiness (we are told) to simultaneously wage any number of anticipated or even purely imaginary wars, it would seem of the utmost importance to discuss why funding and resources for this particular "war," inevitable as it was warned to be by epidemiologists, were, in fact, cut.

Metaphors matter, and when used by politicians and repeated by citizens they deserve to be examined carefully--not just for "what they express" but for how they are supposed to function: the actions they aim to bring about, or, as the case may be, the discussions and investigations they aim to prevent.

The coronavirus is fundamentally a public health issue of the greatest importance, not a war, which should draw a nation's attention to its public health system. In every country the effects of the coronavirus have laid bare the nation's past priorities--as well as raising the possibility that such priorities might be altered for the future.

It is not enough to lionize those medical professionals who have been put in the position of sacrificing themselves to care for the ill in this crisis. In fact, in some cases this kind of talk strikes me as shamefully cynical.

Perhaps in our Hollywood-influenced world it has become automatic to cast reality in terms of wonder boys and superheroes, of the exceptional individual who steps up to save the day (Hurrah!) or perish in the attempt (Sniff, sniff: the pleasure of sweet idle sadness).  (Thrills or sentimentality are too fugitive to carry one too far in the unglamorous process of developing and implementing public policy.)

But it seems to me to be a moronic way not only to conceive of reality but to structure a society.

Unless, that is, the priorities of a given society is to unquestioningly preserve a status quo of debilitating inequality and profoundly unequal access to opportunity. In that case, the myth of the exceptional individual, and the fiction that each and every one of us is potentially such an exceptional individual ("You can do ANYTHING!!!"), is a necessary bit of flattery put forth in the service of a larger confidence scheme. And a society in which those who fail to prove themselves to be exceptional are unworthy of any consideration--certainly in the crafting of policy.

Never mind the fact that most of us, indeed, are simply human, not the stuff of legends or heroic tales--nor should we have to be in order to survive.

Nor should our health care professionals--or, for that matter, grocery store clerks, or any other people now called upon to keep economies going--be called upon to heroically risk their lives because, despite all the warnings in the world, our country finally decided that preparing for an inevitable threat to the public well-being mattered very little or nothing at all compared to private enrichment.

In such countries health care professionals, equipped with nothing more than the vacant flattery of those well out of harm's way, have been treated as sacrificial lambs (and their deaths not even accurately recorded, much less reported), while those responsible for these massive public health failures elude all accountability (and reap windfalls).

The question now is which countries will try to honor all those who have given or lost their lives by crafting policies and setting priorities that aim to diminish so much preventable loss in the future. And which ones will continue to demonstrate that they consider the lives of the vast majority of their citizens to be beneath consideration.  

On the same afternoon, emergency responders wear full protective gear to pick up a non-coronavirus patient


  1. You see far more interesting slices of life from your windows than we do! Magpies and a stranger cat today, that's all!
    Thank you for your thoughtful comments.

    1. Well, there are things to be said for magpies and strange cats, and you probably have a bit of greenery to walk out into.

  2. You've written a sobering and insightful piece indeed. The view from here in Canada is much better than south of the border, but notwithstanding that, your points are well taken in our context as well. My fear for America is that it will take nothing less than a political "revolution" to effect the necessary change. The will for that revolution does seem to exist, but is there time enough left for that? We shall see the first answer to that in November I think. Sending you best wishes from Canada. I long to return to visit Venezia (especially the lagoon) as soon as possible. Dreaming of a walk across Sant'Erasmo as I type this.

  3. Thanks for your comment, Bossert: I think what we are seeing in the US right now is the full, foul flowering of a prior revolution, the vaunted "Reagan Revolution" that began in 1980 and has continued even through Democratic presidential administrations, which has succeeded in convincing people to believe the utterly simplistic if not outright moronic notion that "government" is always bad and even completely unnecessary. With a legislative branch thoroughly corrupted by unfettered corporate money, a severely compromised judiciary, an imperial executive branch, one of the country's two political parties overtly committed to authoritarian rule, and the most watched "news" channel being nothing more than a blatant tool of propaganda and disinformation, any change is going to be an uphill battle, though a vitally necessary one. That said, when we think of moving back to North America it's Canada we look at: any suggestions of a possible landing place (extra points if the area involves any kind of marine industry, either on one of the Great Lakes or oceans)?

  4. I lived in the US between 1978-1982 (at university), so I have a small understanding of that "Reagan Revolution" and the beginnings of the disasters that it brought.

    It's nice to hear that you're thinking of Canada as a potential home at some point. Despite being so close to the US, it is an entirely different world here, both politically and socially. I live out in the country 1 1/2 from Toronto, but I spent many years living in Toronto, which which is beside Lake Ontario (one of the Great Lakes). That said, Toronto has been often and rightly criticized for building a city right beside a magnificent lake and somehow failing to integrate the lake into the living space of the city in any meaningful way. That's slowly being corrected but it will take many decades to fix all the issues. My wife and I love being on water and are thinking seriously about moving to Nova Scotia and living beside the ocean there. Unfortunately I don't know anything about marine industry, but in terms of living near water in terms of lifestyle, my suggestions would be coastal British Columbia ideally on one of the islands off Vancouver (which itself is too expensive), Toronto or somewhere in Nova Scotia (Halifax is the main urban centre). The tricky part of relocating to Canada is that it's just so BIG that it's difficult to get a true feeling for all the various living options here without spending years travelling through the country!

  5. I visited Toronto during my first year of university, just after you'd finished your university years in the US, and I liked it, though it was a short stay--and many years have passed! We're interested in Toronto (my wife liked Montreal, but I don't think any of us are willing to commit to a Francophone life) and, yes, BC around Vancouver is an area we're investigating at a distance. I liked Stratford the couple of different times I visited for the Shakespeare festival but I don't know much about it generally. Maybe London, ON with its university might have more going on.... Is there much going on in other cities along Lake Ontario a rather short distance from Toronto--such as Mississauga, or even Hamilton or Burlington? I saw that Mississauga has a marina, annual boat, waterfront festival, as well as a Univ of Toronto campus... In any case, we have time to do more research.