But, for all that, our celebrations of them ring hollow. Calling them “heroes” allows those of us who are, unlike them, privileged enough to remain home to imagine that these workers agreed to serve as human sacrifices, that there is an inherent nobility in the risks they’re taking. It gives us a chance to ignore the rotten, hazardous conditions that have been allowed to fester thanks to capitalist cruelty and federal malfeasance, and absolve us of any complicity. But most of these workers didn’t sign up to be first responders, and are now overwhelmed by the magnitude of what’s being asked of them. They keep telling us that they don’t want compliments, they want help, but we have continued to fail them.
Even now, many of our newly minted champions work in industries that often lack labor protections; are not and have not been paid a livable wage; still cannot access affordable health care; and are still disenfranchised by a deeply flawed system that places people of color and those who are not documented at increased risk whether there’s a pandemic raging or not. People incarcerated in jails and prisons are manufacturing masks, gowns and hand sanitizer for use outside the walls, even as the virus turns these grim facilities into death traps. Those in the medical field — doctors, nurses, hospital technicians, funeral home owners and morticians — remain in grave danger, and personal protective equipment shortages continue to put their health at risk while working to preserve ours.
Several months into this crisis, these workers have been greeted by ostentatious outpourings of well-deserved appreciation from every direction, even above. On Tuesday, for example, fighter jets flew over Philadelphia and New York City as a salute to the workers battling this crisis. As pretty a picture as these exorbitantly priced, fossil fuel-burning, imperialist war machines may have painted in the sky that day, one can safely assume that the workers they had been dispatched to celebrate would have been far more excited about, say, a raise, or an announcement that the Defense Production Act was being used to ramp up PPE manufacturing. Even a few bottles of hand sanitizer would’ve gone a long way.
What this display did accomplish was to perfectly illustrate the Trump administration’s ongoing response to their favorite new celebrities: loudly “honor” the living, while ignoring the dead and hoping nobody will notice. This is, inevitably, the end point of airily calling ordinary, hard-working people heroes: Heroes, we know, die for us, which is to say that their deaths are acceptable, maybe even necessary. As workers themselves struggle to survive, the people who hold the power to actually help them are consumed by petty squabbling. Thanks to the Trump administration and its unctuous allies, a global public health crisis has been transmogrified into a partisan issue. What’s worse, the federal response to this plague is tied to the reelection prospects of an authoritarian strongman, one who delayed taking action early on to brace for the coming storm and downplayed the virus’s impact to keep the economy ticking along. As Trump’s carnivalesque news conferences burst onto the nation’s television screens, the bodies of the dead multiply, and the funeral homes tasked with their care are forced to close their doors to the overflow.
The general public has not done much better. Those 7 p.m. rounds of applause and celebrity tributes ring awfully hollow when workers in meatpacking plants, public transit hubs, grocery stores and hospitals are dying across the country. The heroes of this plague are not invincible, like the superhuman deities of old; they are flesh and blood. The laurels with which they’ve been crowned will not protect them from covid-19. They are vulnerable to this dreadful virus. And they are just as scared as you are.
We’ve already lost people such as Yolanda Woodberry, who worked as a bus driver in Philadelphia for 17 years; Rakkhon Kim, a letter carrier in the Bronx; Celia Yap Banago, a nurse in Kansas City who had raised the alarm over a lack of PPE at the medical center where she had worked for four decades; Vitalina Williams, an immigrant from Guatemala who had worked at a grocery store and a Walmart in Massachusetts; Frank Gabrin, an emergency room doctor in New York City who had treated coronavirus patients; Jason Hagrove, a bus driver in Detroit who went viral after filming a person open-mouthed coughing on his route; Saul Sanchez, Eduardo Conchas de la Cruz and Tibursio Rivera López, who all worked at the same meatpacking plant in Colorado. The list goes on and on, and will continue to grow as state governments whittle away at unemployment benefits, order the reopening of businesses, and force more workers back out on the job. It must be difficult to feel like a hero when you’re being sent to the slaughter, and yet, the band plays on.
If our negligent, wretched government had done its own job, these workers might still be alive. If we had valued them, and not just trumpeted their value, they would either be receiving full pay at home while caring for their families, or on the job with proper protections, generous hazard pay and gold-plated health-care benefits. If more people heeded stay-at-home orders, tipped well and stood in solidarity with these workers, their day-to-day burden would be lighter. If corporations had prioritized workers over their own profits, horror stories wouldn’t keep trickling out of Amazon, Instacart, Whole Foods, Walmart, Target and FedEx — and those workers may not have felt the urgency to organize a May Day strike. (Amazon chief executive Jeff Bezos owns The Washington Post; Amazon owns Whole Foods.) Essential workers are all fighting for their lives under a system that devalues their very existence as well as their labor. Fawning headlines won’t save them.
So, yes, they deserve our gratitude, but don’t call them heroes. Be empathetic, be grateful, but above all, take action, and make it clear that their lives are worth saving.