When we think of heroes, we usually think of superhuman figures, fictional or mythologized, from Achilles to Churchill, from Boudica to Superman, from Joan of Arc to James Bond. They are heroes because they are able to accomplish that which mere mortals cannot.

Over the past few weeks, we’ve discovered new kinds of heroes – nurses working with inadequate protection, care workers with exceptional dedication, bus drivers who continue to transport key workers.

Few of them would want to be described as heroes. Most would see themselves as ordinary people doing ordinary jobs in extraordinary circumstances. Many might suggest that most people in their place would do what they are doing. And they may be right in that.

What they show is that heroism is a very human attribute. It is expressed not in having an incomparable character or possessing  superhuman abilities but in being human to the utmost.  Heroism in everyday life is, from this perspective, an expression of our humanness.

It has become fashionable to denigrate humans as selfish or callous or egotistical. Many are. But many more are dedicated and compassionate and kind. Humans are far better than we often give ourselves credit for.

In celebrating the endeavours of nurses and care workers and bus drivers and cleaners and volunteers, and the myriad others working to pull us through these surreal times, we should not forget that many are forced to be heroic, through a lack of resources or poor conditions.  Too often heroism is seen in the sacrifice, but not in the struggle against having to make a sacrifice. “When I give food to the poor”, the Brazilian archbishop Hélder Câmara observed, “they call me a saint. When I ask why the poor have no food, they call me a communist.”



An even shorter version of this is published in the Observer.


  1. Humans when facing tragic circumstances together usually mobilise into a cohesive group which requires cooperation and in some instances heroism.

    However hubris about resource shortages and poor conditions is simply avoiding (decontextualising) the conditions that brought about the need for human solidarity in the first place, namely the ecocidal destruction and colonisation of wild Nature, using in the quest to improve resource shortages and poor conditions.

    In this respect, anthropocentrism (tendencies towards human centrism in relation to the ecological world) is deeply selfish and deeply callous in relation to the nonhuman world.

    Human expansionism and the slow but sure obliteration of wild Nature in order to sustain growing human numbers which is coupled with a race to the top in terms of human consumption expectations is the direct cause of why most human societies are increasingly fragile.

    An ecocentric solution is for humans to level down by taxing hard incomes over £30 per hour with taxation being utilised to bring the minimum wage up to £15 per hour, facilitating back to the land lifestyles in order to counterbalance the deeply unsustainable nature of cities like London and to provide quality public service provision. Limiting middle class private consumption in particular will reduce our national consumption and its destructive ecological impacts and provide extra resources to help build sustainable livelihoods and provide extra resources to build sustainable public infrastructure.

    We humans live on a Finite Planet. The quicker people realise this and adapt their human centric thinking the better.

  2. damon

    “we should not forget that many are forced to be heroic, through a lack of resources or poor conditions.”
    This is the crux of it in my opinion. There is great heroism, but people are also being coerced and used.
    Just because you have a job as a nurse or a bus driver, shouldn’t mean you are also expected to take on mortal danger. That wasn’t in the employment agreement.
    Top managers and earners have every last bit of “their worth” highly well paid and compensated for.
    That’s why we’re always being told why it’s only right to pay highly paid executives so much money. Because of their supposed value.
    We have asked and expected workers in the Covid-19 frontline to risk their lives for the good of society and I feel that an unfair burden is being put on them. Lots of them are frightened and feel like they can’t say no.
    I heard just today about pregnant nurses who clearly are worried and have wanted to be furloughed but haven’t been able to do so.

    If there is anything in this storyline about BAME people suffering “injustices” with the virus crisis, it may well be in the area of people feeling unable to say “no” when their job now puts them in new danger. I can certainly believe that some minority ethnic people didn’t feel as confident as others to push back and say how they feel about it.
    And the promise of £60,000 compensation for a dead NHS worker is quite insulting.
    Mediocre footballers get paid that much every week.

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