unsung heroes

Newspaper writers have long made a living penning “thank you” notes to the brave. 

The police officer who falls in the line of duty. The firefighter who runs toward the burning building while the rest of us flee. The young soldier murdered by an enemy bullet on a battlefield half a world from home.

There is no disputing we should cover in glory the most courageous among us, to give them their rightful recognition. 

But then suddenly a virus breaks out, spreading disease and chaos, and, like the rest of us, the people who fill newspapers with words are forced to consider things from a different perspective. 

What is bravery now? Who deserves our accolades and gratitude?

In asking these questions, I don’t mean to diminish the heroism of our first responders and soldiers, who are still better humans than many of us can ever hope to be. 

My aim instead is to expand the ranks of those we judge brave and to give respect to people who often get none.

Like the cashier who checked me out at Bashas’ yesterday and the store employees who unloaded trucks and stocked shelves. 

Like the Walgreen’s pharmacy clerk who filled my prescription and told me to “stay safe” as a goodbye. 

And like the men and women we never see – the farm workers, factory laborers, warehousemen and truck drivers who make up what the pundits on TV suddenly like to opine about as “the American supply chain.” 

Thank you, each of you, for what you do. If we never thought about you much before, that was partly from ignorance, but also because you’re so good at your jobs, we’ve been able to take you for granted.

 Maybe that’s the rare bright spot created by crisis: In being forced to look at life anew, we see what before we neglected. So, thank you.

The same goes for health care workers, from the maintenance staff mopping floors and sanitizing surfaces to the nurses and doctors and support staff working around the clock to find enough beds for the virus-laden and our other sick neighbors besides. 

The public health system in Arizona and nationally may prove inadequate to handle COVID-19, but that failure will not come because the humans who work within the system demonstrated lack of effort. 

Just like firefighters facing down a fully engulfed building, right now there are medical professionals who may lack the proper protective gear and all the necessary supplies, but who are prepared to risk their lives to save yours regardless. 

If that isn’t bravery, then I have no idea what is.

Somewhere right now, letters and parcels are on the move. Airline employees are disinfecting a jetliner to fly a few hundred people to comfort sick family members or reunite with anxious loved ones. An hourly worker, fretting about layoffs, is leaning out the drive-through window to pass along coffee, donuts or lunch. 

Typically, these transactions are throwaway moments in a busy day. We complain because a delivery takes too long, or we wave off the change, more because we don’t want dimes rolling around the car console than we want to fill the tip jar in gratitude.

Sometimes we mutter “thanks.” And every once in a while, we congratulate ourselves because we were extra special nice to the bag boy, the barista or the Uber driver.

These are different times, though. And maybe they won’t be bad in every possible way. 

Maybe we will see with new eyes and a new sense of respect the dignity and courage of those who before we never bothered to notice. 

Maybe coronavirus is one of those things that, if it doesn’t kill us, makes us stronger.