Gratitude, like many conventions observed in everyday life, is remarkably pleasant yet wholly unnecessary. No one would lose sleep without it, but small gestures of thanks have their purpose. Whether someone has held the door open or returned a lost belonging, showing gratitude demonstrates care for others and reminds people that they are worth our time and effort. In the context of the pandemic, gestures as simple as giving someone an extra mask can have a similar impact. However, gratitude alone cannot sustain someone. Showing thanks is important, but ultimately does not satisfy fundamental needs, which are going unaddressed for many emergency workers.
One popular act of gratitude that emerged during the pandemic is Clap for Our Carers. During the start of the COVID-19 pandemic in the spring of 2020, many used applause to express appreciation for front-line health professionals. Organized through social media and performed from open windows and balconies, these events originated in countries such as Italy that were hit particularly hard in the early months of the pandemic. The movement became prominent after it spread to Britain, where it continued weekly until the end of May. Similar tokens of thanks have appeared elsewhere in the world, whether plastered on billboards as in Beirut, or lit-up on national monuments, like the Christ the Redeemer statue in Brazil. In Montreal, police even flashed their lights and sounded their sirens in appreciation.
These acts of gratefulness have unfortunately overshadowed the tangible challenges many of these workers are facing. In Quebec, around the same time as these campaigns were taking place, the province was suffering from a critical lack of frontline workers at nursing homes, further compounded by a preexisting lack of funds. This disconnect highlights one of the main issues concerning emergency workers: Rather than viewing them as real people with real needs, they are portrayed as one-dimensional heroes. While that is a positive message, it can conceal the need for extra support to maintain workers’ physical and mental health during this trying situation. The government can regulate overtime rules for individuals who have to work long hours and subsidize extra pay for those working excessive, yet often necessary, amounts of overtime.
Even as vaccinations are underway, we must acknowledge that the plight of emergency workers will not be remedied overnight. In some parts of Canada, the vaccine rollout has not sufficiently reached frontline workers, with some hospital public relations executives receiving their inoculations first. Similarly, workers who may not be labelled “frontline workers” but who are nevertheless considered essential workers, such as grocery store employees and teachers, have been given no clear message on when they will be vaccinated. Gig workers, like delivery drivers, are also in similarly vulnerable positions, as some see them as independent contractors instead of essential workers.
Teachers and professors are other examples of people who are forced to adapt their routines and take on more difficult work for the same pay. Not only are instructors expected to teach both virtually and in-person, but they also have to deal with hostile parents who are facing their own difficulties. University professors who are expected to adapt to constantly changing plans face similar issues. For example, McGill’s Faculty of Arts remote teaching guidelines were modified from Fall 2020 to Winter 2021, a change that impacted both professors and students.
There is no question that gratitude can feel wonderful on the receiving end. However, kindness cannot keep someone from falling sick, nor can it ensure they have access to fair compensation. While change is necessary on a systemic level, everyone can do better to show tangible appreciation to workers, from McGill students tipping delivery drivers more, to executives and administrators providing better emergency benefits. Platitudes must not drown out the real needs of essential workers, especially not during a time like this.