At no point in my life have I felt less heroic than the last five months. And yet, on or about March 2020, people began calling me a hero. I struggle to describe how angry this makes me.

Make no mistake, as a physician, I’m grateful that the public recognizes the tireless and heartbreaking sacrifices of health care workers. In calling someone a hero, one conjures an image of courage, perseverance, honor. But the rhetoric of heroism is more complex. When some leaders call health care workers heroes, they abdicate responsibility; they displace their duty to serve and protect and instead rhetorically suggest that heroes alone decide victory or defeat.

During this moment of devastation and uncertainty and horror, our characteristic American patriotism has (finally) expanded to include our health care system. Meanwhile our cities burn and our militarized police forces teargas, beat and jail the very citizens that fund their existence and denounce their brutality.

As the body count continues to rise, signs around my city and in my neighbors’ yards proclaim that we stand together—some in the fight against coronavirus, others in the fight against racism. In cities with no yards, daily shouts and claps offer encouragement and gratitude for health care workers amidst shouts for reform and social justice. As the unemployment rate sits at levels unprecedented in recent memory, health care workers (with a valid e-mail address) now enjoy 50 percent off North Face products, discounts on a new car and, for a brief moment, can defer the interest on our student loans.

I am angry because our nation has forgotten why heroics remain necessary. We have forgotten to ask why the wealthiest, most scientifically advanced nation in history requires health care workers to heroically risk their lives. Or why a system of government meant to represent all of its citizens requires unarmed protesters to heroically face heavily armed professional soldiers in full body armor.

To be clear, on one battlefront, our nation is fighting a virus. SARS-CoV-2, which causes COVID-19, is not a terrorist or intergalactic villain. SARS-CoV-2 is an encapsulated virus that dissolves upon prolonged contact with strong soap. Tracking a virus requires the coordinated production and distribution of tests. Treating a virus requires a synthesis of expertise, evidence-based medicine and personal protective equipment. Heroes are not necessary to kill a virus. Heroes are a symptom that our system has failed.

On another battlefront, our nation is fighting systematic racism and institutionalized oppression. For centuries before coronavirus, Black people and other men and women of color have been neglected, discarded and crushed to perpetuate a myth that we live in the greatest of all possible nations. I join others in calling the activists leading these protests heroes, and yet I also acknowledge that doing so once again displaces my responsibility; conceals the radical leadership needed to change the societal structures that reinforce the abuse of Black men and women.

Health care workers and Black activists continue to risk our lives because we have no other choice. We are not heroes because we want to be, but because our government has failed, disastrously, to marshal a concerted, coordinated response; because our government cannot talk to and lead and protect all of our people in our nation.

But it’s not just heroes who have been thrown in jeopardy by this failure to act. For decades, our nation has neglected its health system, has ignored the social determinants of disease that allowed this virus to tear through our communities. For centuries, our nation has labored under the preventable disease of social injustice and racism. COVID-19 has simply exposed how unhealthy we already were. When the body falls ill, comorbidities strike from quiescence.

The irony, of course, is that we—as a nation—possess the society and the government we deserve. We allowed our government to bleed itself of experts and scientists. We allowed our government to purchase bullets and border walls with our tax dollars instead of building surpluses, shoring up our health infrastructure, and crafting pandemic response contingencies. Our government has no power or money but what we give it.

Our nation elected and anointed leaders to prepare and defend us and yet did little when, in 2018, our president jubilantly fired our pandemic response team. Instead of meeting with and meaningfully engaging protesters, our president hid behind his heavily armed guards, who cleared the way into a church courtyard with smoke, flash grenades and chemical spray so he could hold a Bible in front of a camera.

As of this writing, more than 115,000 people have died from COVID-19, a disproportionate number of whom were Black. The total increases hourly. 

For the moment, heroes allow our leaders to make congratulatory, patriotic proclamations that deflect attention from their failure and absolve bureaucratic inadequacy. Yet again, heroes allow our government to move on to re-election campaigns without ensuring that next time, heroes won’t be necessary. We must stop making heroes.

The author and his wife, Kristin Budde, MD, MPH, at a #WhiteCoats4BlackLives protest in New Haven. Credit: Daniel Barron