EVERYBODY loves a hero, whether it’s Cathy Freeman winning the 400 metres at the 2000 Olympics or the people rescuing flood victims from Lismore rooftops in their tinnies.

Perhaps the archetypal image of the modern hero is that of the firefighters rushing into the World Trade Center towers immediately before they collapsed on 9/11, climbing against the tide of evacuating office workers.

It’s impossible not to be moved by the stories of the 343 who died and the many more who suffered ongoing trauma and health effects.

But what does that label “hero” actually mean, and what might be the consequences of applying it?

Over the past 2 years of the COVID pandemic, the word has been widely applied to health care workers in recognition of their courage and devotion to duty under sometimes appalling circumstances.

Not all have welcomed it.

British psychology researchers writing in the Journal of Medical Ethics say the hero label has been a poisoned chalice for many health workers in their country.

“There was initial appreciation from many frontline workers in their being labelled as heroes, yet over time, the shine from this particular label wore off,” they argue.

Many ended up feeling “betrayed, let down or otherwise short-changed by the hero label”.

One of the problems with a focus on individual heroism – however deserved – is that it helps to obscure larger structural issues that may be anything but heroic.

Images of rooftop rescues tend to be more engaging than detailed analysis of Australia’s apparently inadequate capacity to respond to increasingly frequent disasters such as bushfires and floods. Or, for that matter, to plan and implement a vaccine rollout.

When we laud individuals, we also make it harder for them to protest the conditions in which they are forced to work — in the case of COVID-19, the understaffed hospitals, lack of support for GPs, difficulty of accessing personal protective equipment, or abuse from members of the public.

Health workers are heroes, after all. Surely, they’re not going to make a fuss about small stuff like face masks or a bit of weaponised coughing.

In the UK, these researchers write, appreciative gestures such as the awarding of medals and the Clap for the Heroes initiative came to be seen by many health workers as “disingenuous”.

This was particularly the case when the appreciation did not lead to real action to improve working conditions or, worse, when it was “coupled with blatant disregard of public health advice”.

As the BBC put it: “Some health workers have said they would rather people stay at home and wear a mask than clap for them.”

Overall, these researchers write, the use of the hero label during the pandemic has been harmful, but that need not be the case.

“Heroes can inspire and provide comfort and security in times of distress, and in the pandemic context, their incredible work can give us hope and assurance of a barrier between us and unlimited tragedy,” they write.

In recognising the heroic status of frontline workers, though, we must enter into a “hero contract”, they argue, where we as a society are bound to do what we can to help rather than hinder their work.

That seems almost the opposite of what often happens, where the designation of some people as heroes tends to absolve the rest of us of responsibility.

In the case of those firefighters on 9/11, historian Rebecca Solnit has written about how the hero label obscured the contribution of many who did not fit the archetype.

“The US media were intent on making the event far more like the movies, and in doing so the truth and the richness of what ordinary New Yorkers had achieved on that terrible day were lost,” she writes in her book, A paradise built in hell: the extraordinary communities that arise in disaster.

“Those who rescued others included unathletic gay men, older women executives, school principals, Hasidic Jews in distinctly unheroic outfits, a gang of accountants carrying a paralyzed coworker down 69 flights of stairs, young men who stepped up while police were overwhelmed, homeless people, nurses, and chauffeurs.”

The firefighters too did not always welcome being called heroes, she writes.

“They were victims of terrorism, but also of an uncoordinated, unprepared and ill-equipped system. They viewed their own role with ambivalence and were uncomfortable with how it was mythologized.”

Jane McCredie is a Sydney-based health and science writer.



The statements or opinions expressed in this article reflect the views of the authors and do not represent the official policy of the AMA, the MJA or InSight+ unless so stated.

5 thoughts on “Being called “hero” doesn’t always help

  1. James French says:

    The report of the WISH patient safety forum 2015 remarked, “The idea that saving patients’ lives demands heroism is a harmful misconception about health and medicine seen in popular culture. In the real-world, the true heroes are not just rescuing patients, they are voicing their concerns and taking proactive measures to reduce the risks, before a patient is potentially put in harm’s way.”
    Adulation of heroic behaviour ignores the reality of the need for improved systems of care.

  2. Sue Ieraci says:

    Great article, Jane. You are spot on about the “hero” label being an inadequate substitute for the adequate working conditions that would make clinicians not have to behave like “heroes”.

    Every workplace should aim to facilitate its skilled workers using their knowledge and skills to best advantage – not “heroically”!

  3. Anonymous says:

    Hero is frequently an overused term especially when it relates to sports professionals. Doctors, nurses , ambulance, police , fire brigade and SES officers will always have extreme situations and crises to manage as part of their job. . As do politicians. Pay equity however, for the degree of risk in some of those fields, certainly leaves a lot to be desired.
    In my “humble” opinion, State funerals for sports persons, celebrities, dress designers and your average politician are also over subscribed.
    Yes, I do accept that I am perhaps a touch cynical .

  4. Brett A. Lidbury says:

    Thank you Jane – Spot on! The “hero” narrative is convenient for the media and society to roll out as enough to support overwhelmed services and their practitioners … then we move on and forget it. The entire hero narrative needs to be restructured in Western thought. Also, the identification of the “lone” hero ignores the invaluable contributions of those in the background providing support that make heroic deeds possible.

  5. Michele says:

    Parents of children and adults with a major disabilty also cop the label “superhero” too. Though the people saying it usually mean it as a compliment, it hides the fact that “heroism” is only required when regular services are inadequate. Like the firefighters and health staff described, they may be left feeling unsupported and overwhelmed. I often want to ask the person saying this if they still believe in fairies at the bottom of the garden too.

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