As the Coronavirus pandemic continues to uproot and transformed nearly every area of modern life, it is also beginning to uncover and highlight some quite interesting aspects of our society. One of these aspects is a noticeably salient narrative that has emerged in public discourse, of ‘heroes vs. villains’.
The Heroes of Covid
The label “hero” has been most commonly applied to NHS staff who, each day, risk their own health and lives as they treat and care for patients with covid-19. For example, many shops, companies and food-outlets that have started issuing “NHS Heroes” offers, discounts and priority shopping hours. And each week the “Clap for our Carers” is a moving moment of national appreciation (1).
But NHS staff are not the only “heroes” in the Coronavirus narrative. The public have been captivated by individuals who have raised large funds for the NHS- most noteworthy has to be Captain Tom Moore- the 99 year-old military veteran who, by walking 100 laps of his garden, has (to date) raised over £20 million for NHS charities(2).
And of course, we also have the “hero patients”- people who have contracted coronavirus and, against the odds, defeated the infection and returned to health. 106 year old Connie Titchen is the oldest known survivor of Coronavirus, who was applauded as she left Birmingham City Hospital, having battled the virus for 3 weeks(3).
The Villains of Covid
On the other side of the ring we have the villains of the Coronavirus narrative. As with many social issues, the public’s gunfire has begun to turn on the politicians. Despite daily press briefings, mind-boggling levels of cash investments, and a visible striving to follow the medical data during this unprecedented national crisis, I get the sense that government ministers are beginning to lose the support of the general public, as well as that of NHS workers. Many clinicians are taking to social media to vent their fury at the quality and quantity of PPE, lack of testing, and perceived slowness in the government response. Some people are beginning to blame government incompetence for the deaths of clinicians, and the wider high national mortality rates compared with other countries. When Care Minister Helen Whately was interviewed by Piers Morgan on Good Morning Britain, the conversation more resembled a child being scolded by their angry parent than a political interview(4).
Round the world, national governments are increasingly finding themselves in the roles of villains in the narrative. When Dr Li Wenliang, the Chinese doctor who tried to issue the first warning about coronavirus, died of the virus, there was a massive national outpouring of grief and fury directed at the Chinese government, with widespread accusations of a cover-up that cost the doctor’s life. In the USA, President’s Trump’s remarks about withdrawing financial input to the World Health Organisation, as well has is wildly contradictory statements and tweets on the government strategy have sparked outrage and ridicule at home and abroad.
Reflections on the Heroes vs. Villains Narrative
One of the many things that the pandemic is highlighting is our desire as a society to find the heroes and villains of our societal narrative, and to glorify and punish them respectively. But before we jump on the vilifying/ hero-ifying bandwagon, I think there are some points worth considering.
1. Dr Jekyll and Mr Hyde
One of the problems with this ‘hero vs. villain’ narrative is that it risks turning this immensely complicated international crisis into a simple Disney story. We as humans are obviously not all-hero or all-villain, and it is unwise to reduce individuals to their best or worst characteristics. A good example is Prime Minister Boris Johnson. As the leader of the government’s response to Coronavirus, he would have been an obvious individual to vilify in this narrative. However, he went from ‘likely villain’, to ‘victim’ as covid-19 landed him in intensive care, and then to a kind of ‘hero’ as he recovered and publicly heralded the ITU nurses as saviours of his life.
The bible gives an interesting explanation as to why we all have both hero and villain tenancies. It teaches that we are all created as beautiful image-bearers of our Creator God. We act in glorious, praise-worthy and heroic ways because of the glorious, praise-worthy and heroic God with whom we share a family likeness. But we are also all fallen, sinful rebels who have rejected God and in doing so, have wrecked the world and our own lives. We all have hearts and minds tainted by villainess. In the words of Medical Ethics Professor John Wyatt, we are all “flawed masterpieces”(5), or as mathematician Blaise Pascal said, humans are both “the glory and the refuse of the universe”(6).
2. Avengers Assemble
At the beginning of the UK epidemic, I was generally reassured by the unity shown across political and ideological divides as we all tried to come together in the fight against the virus. However, I am now concerned that that unity is fracturing. In creating a ‘heroes vs. villains’ narrative, the media and social media are beginning to drive wedges between groups, at a time when unity have never been more important. Of course, there is a vital place for political opposition parties to suggest, analyse, revise and criticise government strategy. And there is an even more vital role for NHS staff to play in lobbying the government for resources, information and policies. But there is a fine line between constructive scrutiny and unproductive vilification- a line I fear is being crossed. We stand the best chance of curbing this pandemic if we all work hand-in-hand (not literally of course): medics, scientists, politicians, business leaders, social leaders, journalists and the general public. I think the words of Jo Cox, the MP who was tragically murdered during the Brexit Referendum, are very apt for our time: “We are far more united and have far more in common than that which divides us.”(7)
3. These Are Not The Heroes You are Looking For(8)
On final thought worth mentioning, on this ‘heroes vs. villains’ narrative, is the interesting desire we all seem to have to idealise and idolise other people. Why is it that the human race has always been captivated by ‘hero vs. villain’ narratives in fiction? And why do we feel the need to superimpose such narratives on reality?
I think this reveals some insights into how we are wired as humans. We are creatures who desire to follow, emulate and even worship a hero figure. As the Professor of English, David Foster Wallace put it: “There is no such thing as not worshipping. Everybody worships. The only choice we get is what to worship.”(9)
There are certainly heroic acts and events in this Coronavirus story. And praising people as “heroes” is not necessarily a bad thing; knowing that the country is behind the NHS it is a great encouragement to NHS staff to keep going. But we also should be realistic and see such heroes as “flawed masterpieces” like everyone else.
And might it be, that our desire to follow and worship others speaks of our design by a God who is worthy of our worship? Might it testify to humans being created, in the words of the Westminster Catechism, “to glorify God and enjoy Him forever”? C. S. Lewis puts it in typical artistic style:
“Creatures are not born with desires unless satisfaction for those desires exists. A baby feels hunger: well, there is such a thing as food. A duckling wants to swim: well, there is such a thing as water… If I find in myself a desire which no experience in this world can satisfy, the most probable explanation is that I was made for another world. If none of my earthly pleasures satisfy it… probably earthly pleasures were never meant to satisfy it, but only to arouse it, to suggest the real thing. If that is so, I must take care, on the one hand, never to despise, or to be unthankful for, these earthly blessings, and on the other, never to mistake them for the something else of which they are only a kind of copy, or echo, or mirage.”(10)
The Heroes and Villains of Covid
The ‘heroes vs. villains’ narrative is one of the interesting ways in which society has responded to the pandemic. In some ways I can see why this narrative has emerged. We all love a good ‘hero vs. villain’ story. And our screens are currently filled with many inspiring heroic acts and individuals, as well as some questionable powerful decision-makers who appear to be letting the nation down. But clearly the ‘hero vs. villain’ narrative is overly simplistic and arguably not appropriate as the nation battles Coronavirus. I think it is wise to remember that people are complex and do not fit neatly into ‘hero’ and ‘villain’ boxes, and that in this national emergency we desperately need unity over division. And perhaps this narrative is revealing something about the way we are wired as humans; perhaps our desire to glorify others shows us that we are creatures designed by God to worship.
John Wyatt, Matters of Life and Death
Blaise Pascal, Pensées (Translator: A. J. Krailsheimer)
Jo Cox, Speech in the House of Commons, 19th June 2015
I confess that I pinched this title from a Speak Life Podcast
David Foster Wallace, commencement speech at Kenyon College, 2005
C. S. Lewis, Mere Christianity