The “heroes” narrative about NHS and other essential workers is dangerous. As a nurse on the Panorama programme on PPE said, it has an implication that unnecessary deaths are workers willingly sacrificing themselves. It absolves the government of responsibility.
It also carries an implication that those workers rebelling against these conditions lack the courage of their colleagues who accept risks due to lack of PPE.
We have been here before with the government seizing on a semi-spontaneous “heroes” narrative to deflect and silence criticism. It’s what happened in the Iraq war.
All polls suggest the majority of people opposed that war. But at the same time a lot of people wanted to “support the troops”.
That in itself was obviously a nationalistic stance. The government seized on this to push the “heroes” discourse as much as possible. The Royal Family were drafted in to shape the official “heroes” narrative. The government’s responsibility to treat and financially support seriously wounded soldiers was seen to be a matter of charity. What else is “Help For Heroes”?
The Mail, Sun, Star and other media pushed that narrative, and they spent much of their time denouncing opponents of the war who failed to confirm to this “support our heroes” discourse. Under that pressure the Labour soft left and Lib Dems who had opposed the war before it started spiked or downgraded their criticism because they didn’t want to seem unsupportive of “our boys”.
Corporations got in on the act to show their patriotism by supporting Help For Heroes and poppies, and because they feared being shamed in the press.
When serving or ex-military personnel and the families of the dead were critical of the war, their voices were largely silenced in favour of the uncomplicated patriotic narrative.
There is obviously no analogue between those who join the military, and in the final analysis, with caveats about “economic conscription”, are voluntarily signing up to be paid killers of the state, and health and care workers who sign up to save and improve life.
People’s support for NHS workers is overwhelmingly an act of solidarity, with left-wing implications, and has no equivalence with national-chauvinist “support our troops” sentiment.
However, in the government’s shaping, repackaging and promotion of a “heroes” narrative for its own ends, there is a similarity with the Iraq war period.
The Government has been slow and negligent, and so a lack of PPE and testing has helped contribute to deaths.
Yet no one could accuse the government of tardiness in seizing on the Thursday clapping. The Queen was brought in to reconfigure the support for the NHS as a patriotic effort, in the language of wartime propaganda, and to erase the aspect of working-class solidarity.
The right-wing press, after being blasé about the virus and anti-lockdown, are now pushing the “heroes” narrative in the most crude censorious and nationalistic way and demanding performative conformity.
Corporations too are publicly advertising their support for “heroes”. That can help deflect criticism of their treatment of their own workers in this crisis.
All the while the actual voices of NHS and care workers and their unions demanding PPE and better pay, terms and conditions are ignored and opposed. Anyone amplifying those voices is said to be “playing politics”, and spoiling the mood of national unity.
Some on the left are responding to this with a blanket hostility to the Thursday clapping. That hostility seems individualistic and at worse akin to “Wake Up Sheeple” type elitism.
The positive approach is to try politicise and contest those moments with slogans, posters, etc.
Health, care and other workers shouldn’t have to be “heroes”. They should just be able to do difficult, stressful work with the safety equipment and other support they need.