During the COVID-19 pandemic, the media have repeatedly praised healthcare workers for their ‘heroic’ work. Although this gratitude is undoubtedly appreciated by many, we must be cautious about overuse of the term ‘hero’ in such discussions. The challenges currently faced by healthcare workers are substantially greater than those encountered in their normal work, and it is understandable that the language of heroism has been evoked to praise them for their actions. Yet such language can have potentially negative consequences. Here, I examine what heroism is and why it is being applied to the healthcare workers currently, before outlining some of the problems associated with the heroism narrative currently being employed by the media. Healthcare workers have a clear and limited duty to treat during the COVID-19 pandemic, which can be grounded in a broad social contract and is strongly associated with certain reciprocal duties that society has towards healthcare workers. I argue that the heroism narrative can be damaging, as it stifles meaningful discussion about what the limits of this duty to treat are. It fails to acknowledge the importance of reciprocity, and through its implication that all healthcare workers have to be heroic, it can have negative psychological effects on workers themselves. I conclude that rather than invoking the language of heroism to praise healthcare workers, we should examine, as a society, what duties healthcare workers have to work in this pandemic, and how we can support them in fulfilling these.
- clinical ethics
- applied and professional ethics
- journalism/mass media
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