Stop Saying People Have “Fallen Ill”

They’re being felled.
Burials on Hart Island
Burials take place on New York's Hart Island in April 2020. Photo by Andrew Theodorakis/Getty Images

The headlines are stacking up: Grocery store employees, meatpackers, farm workers, nurses, doctors, Black people, old people, and young people are “falling ill” from the novel coronavirus. While other countries like South Korea and Germany have managed to curb the spread of the virus, the United States federal government has given up on keeping its people alive, and American companies like Amazon stubbornly tend their bottom line, into which their workers’ health and lives barely factor. Governors are lifting stay-at-home orders and forcing people off unemployment rolls, and businesses are ordering workers to ignore public health guidelines; deaths and the accompanying headlines about the virus’s toll will continue to mount. A plea to the people writing them: Stop using the phrase “falling ill” and every variation of it.


Much like “passing away,” "falling ill" is an empty phrase that works to conceal the reality to which it's referring. At best it's unnecessarily genteel; most often, it's lazy euphemizing; at worst, it’s a way to avoid contending with the actual reasons why people get sick and die. It presents the sick person as the active party, as someone who has done something, and so obscures and abstracts the fact that the virus is infecting and killing mostly vulnerable people because of specific failures on the part of those who should be mitigating its spread. These people aren't falling; they are being felled.

Yesterday, a Verge story about yet another Amazon warehouse worker dying from coronavirus contained this sentence: “According to alerts viewed by The Verge, at least 29 workers have fallen ill.” This is true, but by centering the workers as parties who are doing something, rather than to whom something is being done, it omits a more important truth: Amazon workers are getting sick, suffering, and dying because they are working alongside sick people in unsafe conditions. You can assign the responsibility for that to people who refuse to stop shopping online despite its toll on other people; to federal, state, or local government; or to the richest man on earth and his cronies, who show very little sign of caring whether workers live or die as long as business is booming and they can fire and smear anyone who objects. The important thing is to assign responsibility. Amazon workers aren't dying because an ominous cloud over which no one has any power is passing through their warehouses. There is no mystery here.


Of course, it’s not just the Verge doing this.

A recent New York Times headline read:


An NPR story said:


USA Today wrote:


A WNYC story was headlined:


WXXV wrote:


A story from WXYZ said:


There's more, of course. A Business Insider story about MTA workers read, "Workers started falling ill in mid-March, leading to service cuts.” A local news story about a senior living facility in Minnesota that had been “hit hard” by COVID went for the double whammy: “At least 12 [residents] have passed away after falling ill with COVID-19.” The Chicago Tribune wrote that firefighters tested positive for COVID-19, adding to the total of first responders “falling ill” with the virus.

The "falling ill" construction does occasionally come up in other contexts: Vanity Fair wrote that John Prine died after “falling ill,” and US News and World Report published an account of a healthy 33-year-old man who had “fallen ill." Based on a non-exhaustive review of news stories from the past two months, though, it seems reserved mostly for low-paid workers, incarcerated people, Black people, and health care staff.

Along with the old, this is who is dying: People who aren’t rich or connected enough to avoid infection. Political and business leaders have decided that they are expendable, that their deaths must be accepted rather than prevented. Whatever the details of the individual case, in the mass they are less dying than being killed. And anyone describing the facts of what's happening to them should ask themselves what is gained by avoiding saying this, and what is lost.

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