'He's a fighter': the language we use around illness needs an update

Boris Johnson has been described as a 'fighter' while in intensive care with Covid-19. But do all these fighting words really relate to illness as we know it?


As sickness becomes a state we are all far too familiar with, the news came that UK Prime Minister Boris Johnson had contracted coronavirus. Many famous faces have fallen ill with the virus since the beginning of its global spread earlier this year, with almost all of them making full recoveries.

The public was understandably shocked when, earlier this week, news broke that Johnson was, in fact, not recovering as planned. The prime minister was in fact admitted to intensive care and had to be put on oxygen to help his breathing while in hospital.

Since Johnson was admitted to hospital, the UK public and government have flooded social media with their well wishes towards him, and rightly so. However, we have also seen a spike in the age-old language typically used around illness – describing Johnson as a 'fighter', 'battling' his condition. That probably needs an update.

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Tired and scared

Terms like 'fighter' and 'battling' an illness takes credit away from those facing an illness (like most of us do) – tired, scared, and jaded. We don't celebrate illness as an opportunity to ride into glorious battle. Illness, depending on its severity, can be terrifying. It can drain every ounce of effort and motivation out of you, both mentally and physically.

When you're seriously ill, you don't wake up every morning raring to go. You wake up fatigued at the thought of another day of the illness. You find some basic tasks difficult, you have to rest a lot more. You get frustrated with yourself, and others. Pain is ever-present, sometimes in both body and mind. Illness is not a celebration. It's tough, and you'd rather be doing anything else than dealing with it.

Class divide

The coverage of Johnson's condition also distracts from the fact that, although he is very ill, Boris Johnson does benefit from a distinct class and financial privilege that many others in the UK, and the world, do not have access to. As the Prime Minister, and as someone who is very wealthy, Johnson will have access to the best medical care on offer.

He will not have to go through the regular wait periods and emergency services to receive care. He will not be subject to difficult decisions that doctors have to make about which patients can get treated and which can't. In short, yes, Johnson will have to 'fight' his way better – but other patients will have to fight harder.

Retreat and rest

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It's true that to return to good health after a serious illness, it does take immeasurable strength to do so. But is someone to feel guilty or less than if, even with all the strength they could muster, they did not 'beat' their condition? Illness does not discriminate – the healthiest person can be snuffed out in the blink of an eye, while a frail, elderly person can live to tell the tale. This is not a measure of how well they 'fought' or how 'strong' they were – sometimes, there is no answer to why one person recovers from an illness and another doesn't.

Illness does not have to be an opportunity to prove yourself. You don't have to show how tough you are, how much burden you can take before cracking. Illness, in reality, is for the opposite. It's a time to retreat, to rest, to allow yourself to feel the enormity of your feelings and work through them, rather than stamping them out in an effort to appear tougher.

If you are dealing with coronavirus right now, or any illness, of any length or severity, please stop worrying about 'staying strong' and 'fighting' your way to health. Now is a time to be kind to yourself – comfort yourself, heal yourself, be gentle with yourself. Illness is not a battle for grandeur – it's just a process for you to navigate as best you can.


Read moreThe myth of productivity during a global pandemic

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Read more: Opinion: 'Everyone else seems to be doing isolation better and more fashionably than me'

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