by Ilaria Salerno

MONACO. In Monaco, the support of the medical staff , true heroes fighting on the frontline, has been  great. In Monaco, there have been many proud displays of recognition. Every night at 7 pm citizens were singing the national anthem to acknowledge the efforts of healthcare workers, as well as emphasise the much-needed unity the pandemic has borne. Each day Supermarkets were dedicating the first opening hour  to the Princess Grace Hospital Centre’s staff, an action mirrored across many countries in lockdown. Along the coast, Nice  provided free taxi rides to all healthcare workers. Today, we can say that the notion of the hero has become a global topic during the Coronavirus pandemia. Heroism is the opposite of evil, heroism is a beautiful quality in human nature, an ideal we can all aspire to. Due to the exaggeration in the attribution of the term ‘hero’ to a celebrity, we could change who we see as heroes. Whereas people who buy the groceries for their neighbours are just being decent, a whistle-blower may be a hero. In fact, heroism must be on behalf of strangers and at some risk to oneself – not just to life or limb, but perhaps to one’s family, career or social standing. The current Covid crisis has thrown more definitive ideas of heroism into the spotlight. First above all, it is crucial to draw an hard line between professionals and amateurs: the firefighter who saves the baby from a burning building is doing his job; it is the passer-by who does so who’s heroic. Likewise, the US Carnegie Medal, established in 1904 by industrialist Andrew Carnegie to recognise civilians who perform extraordinary acts of heroism, expressly rules out those who do so in the line of duty. Well, the front-line workers dealing with the risk of Covid-19 infection make us re-think about what genuine heroism is now. Beyond recognizing people who have lived lives dedicated to a cause, like the Martin Luther Kings and the Mandelas,  or an historic single heroic act, now we’re perhaps recognizing that a title of great honour should reward people who are genuinely putting themselves at risk, which is clearly the case for healthcare workers fighting the pandemic every day. They are Heroes with a capital H, because risk like this was never in their job description! Beyond the Hippocratic oath, the reason behind the behaviour of medical staff may be due to a sense of esprit d’corp, an overly strong self belief, even a characteristic predilection for thrill seeking. We don’t tend to think of people who work in hospitals as taking risk so much as mitigating it, but after all, if you were risk averse you probably wouldn’t go into ICU work. It is difficult to understand why some people don’t act heroically while others do. For instance, the so-called ‘bystander effect’ shows that some people typically assume someone else will tackle the problem; or they tend to believe those in difficulty in some way deserve what is happening to them; or they are less inclined to help those to whom we feel little connection. Since the Homer’s Iliad and Odissey, the idea of the hero has been a core topic of culture. Today, the super-hero movie phenomenon speaks to some renewed, deep-seated need for it. But he also stresses how confused the thinking about heroism can be. It is the moment that calls for the hero, not the hero that makes the situation. And the opportunity to act heroically may never come in a life time. Heroes manage to get past the psychology that would stop other people from acting. Now though we have the opportunity of re-frame the heroic as also something more everyday. It’s inevitable that some people are given less credit because they’re seen as being heroic as part of their job. People don’t tend to think of nurses, for example, as mythic figures because they’re seen as being heroic as part of their job. Risk to them is routine.

An exhausted nurse rests 5 minutes with her head resting on a folded sheet and resting on a desk in front of the computer

Well, this pandemic may allow us to see heroism in a very different way. Re-framing ‘heroism’  means stressing less the idealised action hero variety that typically makes the news, and more the discreet, low-key, often more female variety that is much less dramatic and more personal, that’s not necessarily as sudden act but is more of a continual commitment. For example heroism includes those who donate kidneys to people they’ve never met. As said above, this virus presents conditions that are anything but routine for the medical staff. And what we’re seeing in the use of the word ‘hero’ now is  cognition of those dangers made clearer by the stark contrast between most of us staying at home while others are out there keeping things moving. Maybe now attitudes to the standing of some work, like nursing, will change. One positive outcome of the pandemic could really change things for the better. It would be a potentially trans-formative appreciation of the truly heroic, however easily overlooked.

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