“Of vile, incurable sores on innocent tongues,—
My friend, you would not tell with such high zest
To children ardent for some desperate glory,
The old Lie: Dulce et decorum est
Pro patria mori.
An extract from Wilfred Owen’s 1921 war poem, Dulce et Decorum est. NB. the Latin phrase reads: “It is sweet and fitting to die for one’s country.”
| The hero narrative was good, for a while.
This pandemic hit society faster and more forcefully than any event since WWII. Our natural reaction was to collectively reach for stories of soldiers and heroism to make sense of what was happening. This was our fight. Something a lot of us perhaps relished, given the relative peace we’ve been lucky enough to grow up in.
But there was a problem. The very people who we were calling our frontline heroes hadn’t signed up to that narrative. Just like they hadn’t signed up to charge into battle. Whilst our leaders, media and the twittersphere waxed lyrical about key worker heroics, the people themselves were, in many cases, angry. Angry that they weren’t getting the PPE they needed to treat people safely. Angry that they had to go into spaces like the London Underground where strangers could abuse them.
You can listen to the poem I wrote on this subject, inspired by stories like my cousin’s, above.
| My cousin is one of those frontline workers.
A pregnant NHS nurse, she was entering her second trimester when the pandemic struck. As a key worker she was told she’d have to wait until 28 weeks to request a non-patient facing role. In the end, a patient accidentally coughed on her in her 27th week. She got sick and at one point almost had to go to hospital because her breathing was so bad. Weeks later, she’s still not fully recovered, but thankfully she’s on the mend.
Though she doesn’t lay the blame at anyone’s door, she’s angry that Public Health England downgraded the recommended amount of PPE needed by health workers, contradicting their previous position. As the lockdown eases with no vaccine in sight, she and her colleagues fear for potential cases increasing when PPE availability still hasn’t.
| And she feels ashamed when we clap each week – she chose her job because she wanted to help people, not because she was being heroic.
Dr Meenal Viz is in a similar position to my cousin. An NHS doctor, she also had to work through this crisis whilst in her second trimester. Along with her husband Dr Nishant Joshi, she’s launched a legal challenge to the government’s guidance on PPE provision, which they believe is putting them and their colleagues at risk. Last night Dr Viz knelt outside No 10 to hold 235 seconds of silence for each health worker who has died unnecessarily during this pandemic.
“What started off as a gesture of gratitude from the public 10 weeks ago very quickly became corrupted by our politicians. On one hand, they show their face outside number 10 and clap, the next minute, they turn around and walk into the very same building where they make decisions that result in the suffering of healthcare workers across the country. – Dr Viz
As doctors, we cannot sit and watch our colleagues die, we cannot allow healthcare workers to become another statistic – these tragic deaths could have been avoided. We do not want to attend another colleague’s funeral.
The time and effort our politicians have put in to save Dominic Cummings, to cover their mistakes, and to fool us into thinking that the UK has successfully handled the pandemic could have been used into protecting the NHS. This systemic negligence has to come to an end.”
To support their campaign you can donate to their crowdfunder here.
| By calling frontline workers like my cousin and Dr Meenal heroes, we are washing our hands of accountability.
As life slowly returns to normal, we must not forget the unfair sacrifices our key workers were forced to make.
We must cast our eyes to the reasons so many have died, or fear for their lives at work. We must hold those who allowed this pandemic to fester in the heart of our health service to account. It took a public outcry before the government scrapped the £400 surcharge for migrant health and care workers, so we shouldn’t be surprised if as little respect is given to key workers in the coming months.
Our carers deserve a living wage that doesn’t penalise them for doing an essential job. Our vulnerable need carers who have the time and motivation to do their job properly. Our NHS staff need to walk into work knowing they’re as safe as possible.
We’ve clapped for 10 weeks straight. Now it’s time for action.
Shape History is a social impact communications agency. We nurture purpose-led institutions, charities, campaigning groups and social impact leaders with strategic design and communication to accelerate social impact.