How Covid-19 has expanded definition of heroes

Moments of crisis often give rise to their heroes. Covid-19 has given us its own, though, according to the experts who look at such things, the pandemic could change how we define heroes.

Let’s begin, however, with Captain Tom Moore, who became a Covid-19 hero in Britain and around the world during this past couple of months.


He is now an honorary colonel. He is set to be recognised with the highest honour in Britain with a knighthood by Queen Elizabeth after which, as an honorary colonel, his official title will be Captain Sir Thomas Moore under the UK Ministry of Defence protocol.


When he first appeared in the news he sought to raise 1000 Pounds Sterling (RwF 1.17 million) by walking 100 laps every day in his garden until his birthday. He hoped to raise the amount by the time he turned 100 on April 30.


He could not have imagined how it would turn out. By his birthday, his fundraising had netted more than £37 million (RwF 43.1 billion). By then, he had long become a national treasure and global celebrity.

He inspired many. One of them was 95-year-old Nigerian war veteran, Private Joseph Hammond, who took the challenge of commuting on foot for 2 miles every day for 7 days to raise $600,000 to fund personal protective equipment (PPEs) for frontline workers as well as veterans across the commonwealth countries.

In Malawi, Captain Tom spurred on a 7,000-mile challenge undertaken by the UK Military Community in the country to raise £7,000 (RwF 8.17 million) to procure PPEs for Malawi frontline health workers.

There’s one more oldster I am aware of – another 100-year-old – he inspired to raise money. But it was the Russian Red Army veteran, 97-year-old Zinaida Korneva, who warmed many hearts. 

I saw on TV the socks she had knitted for Captain Tom’s birthday. “Let them keep you warm with love from Russia," she had said as she announced her own fundraising “for our Russian medics who got infected with coronavirus.”

She added, "We beat fascism together in 1945 and now fight this virus together.”

All these are acts of heroism by the nonagenarians and centenarians. A hero, as commonly defined, is a person who is admired for their courage, outstanding achievements, or noble qualities.

Doctors and nurses at the frontline risking their lives in the Covid-19 pandemic have been called heroes. Are they?

The question has had experts such as Frank Farley, professor of psychology at Temple University in Philadelphia, debating about it.

The debate is whether they have been overlooked in the collective nature of their work, and because they are paid to do their jobs, implying conscious decision to sign up aware of the risks.

“We don’t tend to think of people who work in hospitals as taking risk so much as mitigating it, but you do see these kinds of qualities in medical people. After all, if you were risk-averse you probably wouldn’t go into ICU work,” he told BBC.

Another expert, Philip Zimbardo, professor emeritus at Stanford University in California, is more definite. His work is credited with kick-starting the fledgling psychological field loosely dubbed “hero studies”. 

He feels heroism must be on behalf of strangers and at some risk to oneself – not just to life or limb, but perhaps to one’s family, career or social standing. A whistle-blower may be a hero. 

Zimbardo, like others in the field noted by BBC, also tends to draw a hard line between professionals and amateurs: the firefighter who saves the baby from a burning building is doing their job; it’s the passer-by who does so who’s heroic.

“I think we’re being made to think about what genuine heroism is now,” He says. 

“Typically, it’s been ascribed to people who have lived lives dedicated to a cause – the Martin Luther Kings and the Mandelas. Or it’s been ascribed to the single heroic act. 

“Now we’re perhaps recognising that we should be willing to give what is, after all, a title of great honour to many more people who are genuinely putting themselves at risk, which is clearly the case for healthcare workers in particular now. 

“Risk like this was never in their job description. What’s more, they’re doing it every day. That’s heroism with a capital H.”

He says that one positive outcome of the pandemic would be a potentially transformative appreciation of the truly heroic, however easily overlooked.

The clapping for the health care workers we have been seeing in neighbourhoods around the world leave no doubt as to their heroism.

The views expressed in this article are of the author.

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