Photographer Joshua Irwandi reveals story of Covid-19 image ‘that shocked a nation’


The photographer of one of the most controversial images of the Covid-19 pandemic has revealed what happened in the devastating weeks that followed.

CAUTION: Distressing image.

The photographer of one of the most controversial images of the coronavirus pandemic has revealed what happened during the devastating weeks after posting the image on social media.

Joshua Irwandi’s photograph of a body of a Covid-19 victim wrapped in plastic and soaked in disinfectant in an Indonesian hospital has been dubbed “the photograph that shocked a nation” by National Geographic in July of last year.

The process of wrapping the patient in three layers of plastic and disinfecting nine times takes two nurses per hour and was commissioned by the Indonesian Ministry of Health to suppress the spread of the virus at the start of the pandemic. The process is believed to continue to this day.

Irwandi had posted the photo, titled The human cost of Covid-19, to Instagram as hospitals struggled under the weight of the coronavirus outbreak. The photo accompanied a story of National Geographic who faced the devastating reality of the Covid in a country that struggles to understand.

Unprepared and overwhelmed, Indonesia, with a population of 273.5 million, has suffered one of the worst Covid-19 outbreaks in Asia and, in many cases, the world.

In August of this year, a second wave of Covid-19 is believed to have caused 50,000 deaths in a matter of weeks, with the total number of infections running into the millions.

At the start of the epidemic, in March last year, President Joko Widodo swept aside the emerging virus, touting herbal remedies and refusing to take action on social distancing and health measures. As a result, cases have exploded.

“It was complete chaos at the start of the pandemic. The test results took weeks, and sometimes they didn’t come back until after the patients had died, ”Irwandi told

“Nurses had to lie to their parents about their work. Many nurses were treated like outcasts, they were not even allowed to return to their houses rented by their owners. Some have caught the virus themselves. Patients weren’t always honest about their symptoms.

“Worse yet, personal protective equipment was not always widely available. Lots of used raincoats and tape. If there were any available, they were expensive, poorly made, and easily torn.

“In short, we have decided to wake up late to the pandemic, the biggest medical crisis in modern Indonesian history.”

Story behind the photo

Similar to other photojournalists around the world, Irwandi asked to photograph how Covid-19 affected life in an Indonesian hospital. As part of a grant from the National Geographic Society, he followed health workers – and captured the unforgettable image of an unidentified Covid-19 victim, looking almost mummified.

Fred Ritchin, Dean Emeritus of the International Center for Photography, told the publication: “It makes you look, feel terror. To me, the image was of someone thrown, thrown, wrapped in cellophane, sprayed with disinfectant, mummified, dehumanized, altered… It makes sense in a way. People have other people with the virus because they don’t want to be around the virus. “

The image was quickly picked up by global publications and the response, especially in a country that seemed determined to ignore the reality of the pandemic, has been hostile.

“We entered a world that was relatively unknown to us at the time,” Irwandi said.

“For this particular image, it was not something that I came to photograph on purpose.

“I never entered the service with the intention of taking pictures of victims being wrapped. This

This is something I only encountered when I was integrated into the doctors and nurses of the Covid-19 service. I just wanted to show what the reality was.

Over 350,000 people have liked her image since Irwandi posted it on Instagram. Over a million people liked the image on its first day on Nat Geo’s Instagram page.

But instead of forcing the nation to act, the authorities cracked down. Irwandi has come under heavy criticism and his credibility has been called into question. Personal details of his private life have been released.

Dr Wiku Adisasmito, of the National Coronavirus Task Force, said CNN Indonesia that Irwandi was “unethical” for posting the image and authorities asked him to reveal the location of the hospital where the photo was taken.

“If the photo is true, then the person taking the photo and distributing it is an unethical person,” Wiku said.

Criticism is mounting.

Indonesian singer Erdian Aji Prihartanto, aka Anji, slammed Irwandi on Instagram to his two million followers, later accusing him of also faking the photo. Anji’s supporters quickly added to the fire, accusing Irwandi of being a “slave” to the World Health Organization.

Anji was quickly forced to apologize following the reaction of the professional organization of Indonesian photojournalists who called the artist “harassment”.

Irwandi told what happened in the days leading up to the controversy.

“One of the spokespersons for the Covid-19 response team sent me a direct message on Instagram, asking if she could share the post on Instagram Story.

“A few days later, I saw on the news that another member of the response team was calling me and people who shared the image as ‘unethical’.”

That was the criticism, said Irwandi National Geographic at the time: “The photograph served its purpose of raising awareness and galvanizing a dialogue about the pandemic… I must disappear for the time being, after shocking the nation.”

One year later

A year later, finally, some reprieve. The photo won second place at the 2021 World Press Photo Awards in the General News category and was also a 2021 Pulitzer Prize finalist for news photography.

“When the photo went viral, what struck me the most was how polarized opinions were regarding the pandemic,” Irwandi told

“Maybe I was unconscious, but I didn’t feel this until the photo I uploaded to Instagram was

viral. At the start of the pandemic, I thought we were in the same boat, I thought we would support each other as much as possible.

“I thought we would give anything to change the situation we are going through, to flatten the curve and support those who need it. I thought we were on the same boat.

“Seeing such polarization was shocking, rather than frightening, for me. I quickly realized that this was not necessarily the denial that we are fighting against. We’re also fighting a losing battle with a social media algorithm where the reality people believe in is the reality they choose for themselves.

“What I photographed was a procedure mandated by the Indonesian Ministry of Health. This is the procedure that continues until today. The public has a right to know this fact, ”Irwandi said.

After the devastating second Delta wave in July, there is now hope as the number of Covid cases in Indonesia declines. After a daily record 56,757 new daily case numbers on July 15, the numbers fell to just over 1,200 this week, according to the John Hopkins Coronavirus Tracker. Deaths have risen from over 2,000 at the most to just over 250.

The latest statistics show that Indonesia has reported a total of 4.23 million cases and 143,000 deaths.

However, the numbers are not being released and experts are not convinced they have escaped a third wave. An epidemiologist advising the ministry spoke to Al Jazeera on condition of anonymity and described as “incompetent” the efforts of provincial governments.

“If the next wave is as big as the one we had in July, I don’t think the country is better prepared. “

Irwandi agrees that there is cause for concern.

“In various pockets of the city you can still see crowds, people not wearing masks.

“After speaking to medical staff, patients and survivors in Indonesian hospitals in recent weeks, vaccination appears to be the unifying factor that dramatically lowers the risk of severe cases or death.

“If we don’t start to recognize its importance or to follow the current health protocol, it is only a matter of time before we have another wave, and for those who do not yet have access to immunization to suffer the worst. “

“The proof is clear before our eyes that no successive event has caused 4.55 million deaths out of 219 million cases.

“To those who don’t believe, if I can quote a doctor I spoke with recently: ‘In time they will. We would only react when our loved ones were affected.

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