On Language | The Trouble with “Heroes”

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Last night at 8pm on the third evening of our semi-lockdown in the UK, hundreds of thousands of people took part in a national round of applause for the NHS. I live in a strong Labour seat, so I knew the clapping, whistling and fireworks were genuine and heartfelt. However, we are just a few months out from a general election where large swathes of the population voted for a party who have been carefully – and not so quietly – undermining, underfunding, and undervaluing the same health service they were stood on their doorsteps cheering for. Talk is cheap and easy, but I couldn’t bring myself to take part in an event which had been co-opted by people who refuse to pay a penny more in tax to fund the NHS, as well as the same government which has spent the past ten years destroying the health service they now celebrate.

I show my support for the NHS, for social care, for our schools and our public services by voting Labour at each and every election. I have no post-election guilt to assuage and will not be taking part in any future street party / mass participation feel good event / “Blitz Spirit” shows of affection, no matter how long this lockdown continues. I have always found the language of ‘heroism’ problematic – I come from a military family but refuse to wear a poppy – but now more so than ever as its use is overtly political and used to mitigate poor planning and bad decision making.

How can we expect our NHS to step up to the challenge of COVID-19 when there aren’t enough doctors and nurses, beds or ventilators to cover those who find themselves struggling to breathe in intensive care? Before COVID-19 our government was calling many of those who work in health and social care “low-skilled” and telling them to “go home”. In the space of a few short weeks the “low skilled” have been rebranded as “heroes” and “key workers”, but we shouldn’t use language to paper over ten years of underfunding and pretend that the situation isn’t highly political. This exercise in rebranding also won’t bring back the doctors, nurses and care workers who have fled from our racist, bigoted shores since June 2016, leaving us with a staffing crisis in health and social care.

Granted, COVID-19 has stretched the NHS to its limit, but even our annual flu season brings it to its knees. Ed’s grandfather is 94 and has terminal lung cancer. On New Year’s Day, struggling to breathe, he was admitted to hospital but kept on a trolley in the corridor for several hours because the hospital didn’t have the staff or resources to give him a bed on a ward. Thankfully he recovered from the flu and was discharged, but he was warned that if he needed to go to hospital again there was little they could do for him, so it was best for him to be cared for in his own home.

Working in the NHS is stressful. For myriad – political – reasons, there aren’t enough staff, so those who remain are overstretched and work long shifts in very difficult conditions. Now we’re expecting them to deal with a pandemic on top of their usual workload, armed with nothing but paper masks, plastic aprons, and shiny “hero” badges.

I know that the vast majority of people who took part in the round of applause last night are good, kind, considerate people, and many of them hold progressive, centrist, or left-wing political views. I also know that I am cynical, and that the gesture was just meant as a show of support in difficult times. However, words and actions matter, as they shape not just the way we communicate with one another, but also our understanding of the world and the expectations we hold for ourselves and our fellow citizens. When a display of gratitude is co-opted by a government and populace which has gone out of its way to demonstrate just how little it cares about our National Health Service, the act itself becomes hollow. Heroism is associated with bravery, risk, and sacrifice, none of which has a place in the health care system of a civilised society. We shouldn’t be asking our doctors and nurses to put their own health and well-being on the line like this.

Remember this moment next time your pencil hovers over your ballot paper in your quiet voting booth. Voting Labour might not be as Instagram worthy as filming yourself banging a pot and singing hymns from your doorstep, but prevention is better than cure, and language is a poor substitute.

Edited 23rd April 2020 to add the following:

Since I wrote this piece, we’ve had a weekly clap and bang at 8PM every Thursday night. I still don’t take part. On top of the weekly feel good show we have also witnessed Hancock offering real badges for carers, in place of the 100,000 tests and adequate provision of PPE he promised – and failed – to deliver to the NHS by the end of April. In a twist you couldn’t write as part of a comedy sketch for fear it would seem too far fetched, the government has since then also ran out of badges.

Our country is in such a sorry mess that our pensioners are pledging to walk laps of their gardens to raise money for the NHS, and our school children – those who are still in school as a result of being the children of “key workers” – are making face shields in their schools’ design and technology labs to give to local hospitals to make up the short fall in PPE. Ed, a secondary school maths teacher, is at work this week supervising a group of children as they construct these face shields. While it is lovely to witness this community action, we shouldn’t need it.

I am just so unbelievably angry. The NHS is not a charity, it is a valuable piece of state infrastructure that we should fund accordingly through our taxes. While it’s impressive that a war veteran has raised over £28 million for NHS charities at the time of writing, we are a nation of close to 70 million people. A fair tax system would generate that amount and more on a consistent basis, if only we had the political will to enact it. The Conservatives believe in a small state and a big society, but that assumes that society is buoyant and healthy enough to be able to give to charity, which after ten years of austerity, ours isn’t. We are witnessing a huge swell in support for charities and our NHS because the situation is critical, and the wealthy recognise that the situation effects them, too. They can’t just go private. I fear that the government will see this as proof that they can further dismantle the state after the current outbreak has been brought under control.

Call me a dreamer, but surely it would be better to make the wealthiest in our society give back in a meaningful way through taxes, rather than rely on charity, so that at times of crisis like this we don’t find ourselves up a creek without a paddle in the first place.

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