Why healthcare workers are now dubbed heroes

15 Apr 2020

The worldwide corona crisis is unique in history, which makes it interesting for scientists. How do researchers in Nijmegen view the situation from their various disciplines? In part 7 of the series Science & Corona, Professor of Narrative Communication José Sanders reflects on the heroic stories about healthcare workers.

Aunt Agatha is in the final stage of her life. She’s old and fragile but still clear-headed. She’s told her GP that she has lived long enough. She’s determined to decide for herself when her life has been completed, to choose the moment of her death. Until then, planning the funeral is an important goal. Her nephew Gideon will speak, she’s already asked him. There will be music by Bach. And after the cremation, there won’t be coffee and cake but rather a toast to celebrate her life.

Loss of control

The Netherlands is filled with such fictitious ‘Aunt Agathas’ who consciously want to shape their own life’s story right up to the end. In other words, they want to stay in control and make dying part of their own ‘narrative’.

But then the coronavirus appears. In no time at all, there is chaos and loss of control throughout the world. Covid-19 is extremely unpredictable and threatening. Hospitals are flooded with patients, a devastated Netherlands grinds to a halt. A sudden death without any form of choice is hanging like the sword of Damocles above everyone’s head.

‘We suddenly lose the possibility of controlling our own story’

‘We suddenly lose the possibility of controlling our own story,’ said Professor of Narrative Communication José Sanders. And she is fascinated by what then happens. ‘Characteristically, in such powerless situations a collective narrative arises in which those who are still in control and on whom we appear to depend suddenly play a main role.’

Storytelling

Sanders researches the ways in which people make stories from experiences and then use those stories to achieve a purpose. That is an ancient procedure – for example, stories from the Bible and folktales; the growth of social media has made storytelling even more influential: for example, many people on Facebook and Instagram carefully construct the story of their own lives in which they play the main role.

José Sanders. Foto: Suzan Schlijpers

What Sanders currently sees happening is that stories are shifting from the individual to the collective and ‘our’ story in this corona crisis is concentrating on the scientists and especially on healthcare workers. ‘We are in their hands, they can save us,’ said Sanders. So we hang banners at hospitals and we applaud from our balconies. Whether or not healthcare workers want this, they are momentarily the people’s heroes.

After 9/11, the spotlights were trained on the courageous firefighters who were the only ones allowed to enter the smouldering Twin Towers in order to rescue people. ‘They told the story then. Literally, because no one else could show the story from the inside. Something similar is happening now. The hospital wings where corona patients are being cared for are hermetically sealed off. Watch the series Frontberichten on TV each evening: thanks to the new media, healthcare workers themselves can send images of the front to the rest of the world. They are literally and figuratively our storytellers. And their stories offer an important grip in making the intangible comprehensible.’

Journalists

Of course public media plays a large role in this. Journalists make heroes; they too are looking for the human story and so contribute to the heroic narrative of healthcare workers. ‘This is a heyday for journalism,’ Sanders said. ‘Readers can hardly wait to grab the newspaper out of the letterbox, and a lot of people are suddenly watching the news on TV again. Help us interpret!’

The media have a large responsibility in all this, claims the professor. Because in addition to heroic stories, there are also stories of victims: the rare case of a baby who became infected with corona, the healthy young man who died from corona against all expectations.

‘It’s logical that journalists search for stories with an impact. And exceptions often get attention in the news. But for many readers, N=1. These are the articles they’ll remember. You can’t feel figures and statistics, but you can feel these sorts of real stories. Exceptions can generate a lot of fear, and the media must also realise that that is also an effect of such an article.’

New reality

Back to the heroic stories. What is their function? José Sanders says that they’re more than a way to get a grip on the new reality and on the idea that we can no longer control the end of our lives. They are part of a meaningful connection. ‘In other words, a story in which everyone has a useful role, even those who are sitting at home and dependent on the media. They can’t do much more than admire and encourage this sacrifice.’

‘Let’s search for remedies, not for a deliberate meaning behind this catastrophe’

According to Sanders, public energy can thus be mobilised even from a safe distance. But there will come a moment when people will triumph over their pain and powerlessness and will want to fight the virus (in the post-9/11 period, this was the ‘war on terror’). In this way, a heroic story can easily become a battle story, she explained.

‘Narrative metaphors like these are important and useful, but they’re not without consequences: they can give rise to major effects like suspending individual freedom in the battle. Under some authoritarian regimes, like Hungary, that’s already happening. And various editorials in the newspapers have justifiably warned about this in the past few days.’

Hurtful

And so Aunt Agatha, who now sees her carefully orchestrated end being threatened and who is now deathly afraid of corona, has her own role in the new collective story that is giving us support and meaning. But Sanders warns against making the story too meaningful.

Three weeks ago I read an article in de Volkskrant in which the author wrote: don’t turn this corona crisis into a story like ‘the earth wants to warn us’ or ‘we’ll be better off after this’. Indeed, it’s much too early for that. Let’s search for causes and remedies rather than a conscious meaning behind this catastrophe. We still have no idea how much damage will be done to public health, the economy, the democracy in many countries and global stability. To say that this crisis has a higher purpose is hurtful to all those people who, both here and across the globe, are its direct victims.

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