Unsung heroes make fight winnable

(May 8, 2020)

Seventy-five years ago, my grandfather celebrated the end of the war in Europe with his unit in Holland.

In the history of heroes written about those who served in the Second World War, he was less than a footnote. He did not see combat. His medals included none for bravery or heroism, just the “I wuz there” set that everyone in the services received.

He was a mechanic with the Royal Canadian Electrical and Mechanical Engineers, who kept the engines running and the tank tracks working, no matter what.

It is easy to forget people like him, in the midst of the heroic stories of risk, danger and sacrifice that we tell to our children. There was no drama, no movie-worthy moments, in the job he did — just dirty, unrelenting work, under difficult conditions, without anyone taking notice or offering applause.

But without him and his mates, it would have been a long walk from the beaches of Normandy. Without him and others like him, doing equally invisible jobs, there would have been no VE-Day celebrations on May 8, and the heroic sacrifices we honour today might all have been made in vain.

In our pandemic year, we are facing a similar situation.

The medical heroes are obvious — the doctors and, especially, the nurses, who are on the front lines, treating patients in hospitals. Then the researchers, battling the virus in laboratories to produce a treatment or vaccine.

But behind them all, there is a whole army of people like my grandfather, without whose daily hard, dirty and unrelenting work everything those heroes hope to accomplish would fall apart.

So I am glad to see the growing recognition of everybody involved — not to make the doctors, nurses and researchers less heroic, but to remind society of those people whose efforts are just as crucial but much less visible.

That list of essential services and the people who provide them grows daily, as the veneer of our society gets stripped away by the grim reality of the pandemic.

The supply chain that is the subject of academic debate is mostly made of people, from those who grow, produce and process our food, to the ones who load and drive the trucks, to the ones who stock the shelves and the cashiers who still greet us with a smile. It’s the child-care workers, who love and care for children so their parents can do these other jobs, the delivery and postal workers who bring things to our doors so we don’t have to risk leaving home.

As we watch the pandemic tragedies unfold, consider the janitors, cleaners and caregivers in the nursing homes and hospitals, who do their work unnoticed — and the disastrous consequences for them and for the elderly residents when there are too few staff or too little protective equipment.

Because of the pandemic, anyone who has been paying attention has been forced to reconsider the difference between what they want and what they need, what is essential and what is a luxury. We once easily tossed off phrases like “I’m dying for a haircut,” or a drink, or a hamburger, without thinking — at least until now — that such an outcome could actually be true.

COVID-19 has made us realize that no matter how careful we might be ourselves, our lives (and the lives of people we love) could depend on the thoughtfulness and personal hygiene of strangers.

We have also had nearly two months to consider the social value of the jobs people do — what they are really worth, in terms of what society is willing to pay. I have to admit grinding my teeth while listening to earnest bank executives on television or reading smarmy “Dear Cardholder” emails from credit agencies, telling me how much they care.

In this pandemic year, financial institutions will be the only ones (apart from medical gear and cleaning supply companies) that, once again, will make huge profits, as their executives take home millions in salary, plus bonuses, at our expense.

There are many other people, doing much more important jobs, who make far less money to keep us healthy, fed and secure — at the risk of their own lives.

So, on VE-Day, I will be remembering my grandfather. He was a little guy, with red hair and a grin, unremarkable even in his name. Yet those victory parades were just as much for him as for anyone else, because without the quiet and determined work performed by him and others like him, the wheels of civilization would quickly have ground to a halt.

As the bells ring out in Holland and around the world for the 75th anniversary of war’s end in Europe, I’ll raise a glass in salute to Fred Smith and others like him, then and now.

They have earned it — and more.

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