Why we should be careful about calling healthcare workers ‘heroes’

Published in


Cox CL. J Med Ethics 2020;0:1–4. doi:10.1136/medethics-2020-106398

  • 17 June 2020


Acknowledging that healthcare workers and society have reciprocal duties towards each other, and discussing how society can best support healthcare workers in their role during the COVID-19 pandemic, may be more appropriate than using the language of heroism.


Healthcare workers are often praised as ‘heroes’ during the COVID-19 pandemic. But such language can have negative consequences. This paper examines the concept of heroism, explores why healthcare workers are described as ‘heroes’ at the moment, and reflects on why this language may be problematic.

Healthcare workers have a clear but limited duty to treat during the COVID-19 pandemic. But the heroism narrative can be damaging, stifling meaningful discussion about the limits of this duty. And invoking a heroism narrative does not do enough to recognise that healthcare workers’ duty to treat is tied to society’s obligations.  It fails to acknowledge the importance of reciprocity, and by suggesting that all healthcare workers have to be heroic, it can have negative psychological effects on workers themselves. For example, it can add to healthcare workers’ anxiety about personal risks and increase the pressure on them.

The full article recommends reframing the narrative away from ‘heroism’ towards examining the duties healthcare workers have in the pandemic and how society can support them.

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