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The Guardian view on coronavirus: as deaths mount, so do questions | Editorial

“How long do I have?” replied Intisar Chowdhury, when asked on the radio how he would like his father, a doctor, to be remembered. Abdul Mabud Chowdhury, who was 53, died this week at Queen’s hospital in Romford, east London, two weeks after being taken to hospital with coronavirus – and three weeks after appealing directly to the prime minister on Facebook for more personal protective equipment (PPE) for medical staff, and fast-track access to testing.

It is not only by his son, wife and 11-year-old daughter that Mr Chowdhury, who was a consultant, deserves to be remembered as a hero. But as UK deaths continue to mount – the official tally is now around 9,000, with up to 1,000 people who have died in care homes yet to be added – the tens of thousands who are mourning a close family member, and many others who have lost a friend, colleague or neighbour, are too occupied with private grief to demand a public accounting.

Countless others are suffering the financial shocks caused by unemployment, with far worse to come. Meanwhile, the toll of the crisis on those with vulnerabilities including mental health difficulties and social isolation has barely begun to be measured. The nation, like many others, is in a state of shock – a mood of mingled fear and disbelief that was heightened by the events of the past week, during which the prime minister received treatment in the intensive care unit of St Thomas’ hospital.

Boris Johnson remains ill in hospital. The Guardian wishes him a full and speedy recovery. His family, particularly his pregnant partner, Carrie Symonds, and his children, deserve every sympathy. His government, however, must continue to submit to forensic scrutiny. All the evidence suggests that its decision-making was poor, placing human lives such as Mr Chowdhury’s at increased risk (though it is not yet known whether the lack of PPE was a factor in his case). Of particular interest are the crucial four weeks between late February and the start of the lockdown on 23 March.

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One must always be cautious about apportioning blame with the benefit of hindsight. This is never more true than when confronting unprecedented events. But ministers’ decision to disregard the example set by east Asian countries in January, and the failure to prioritise testing and the sourcing of vital equipment (ventilators, masks), have cost lives. Suggestions that, as recently as a month ago, Mr Johnson was worried about the impact of a lockdown on his popularity, and feared that northern voters would object to pubs being shut, require closer examination. That the UK’s coronavirus strategy could have been influenced by such narrowly political calculations and stereotypes is horrifying.

The lines between public and private life are being redrawn. The role of social media, the millions of people working and schooling from home, restrictions on travel: these factors and others mean that our society is being transformed. Support for the health service has probably never been stronger, as ministers knew when they created the slogan “Stay at home, protect the NHS, save lives”.

The efforts of hospitals, care homes, social services and key workers including supermarket staff must continue to be clapped. But the spirit of national togetherness should not be invoked to fend off legitimate criticism. With deaths expected to keep rising for two more weeks, the bleakest sorrow awaits tens of thousands more families. Those lucky enough to escape the worst can still rage against the dying of lights such as Mr Chowdhury’s.


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