Tragic photos can change the course of history—but not always

A picture of a COVID-19 victim is galvanizing conversation in Indonesia. Will it lead to lasting change?

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The body of a suspected covid-19 victim lies in an Indonesian hospital. After the patient died, nurses wrapped the body in layers of plastic and applied disinfectant to prevent the spread of the virus.

The image is frightening. A corpse lies stiffly on a hospital bed, wrapped in plastic—a modern mummy. The room is dark, sterile, impersonal. No one sits with the body to mourn the life that was lost.

A suspected victim of COVID-19, the person died in an Indonesian hospital. Nurses, fearful of infection, wound plastic around the body and sprayed it with disinfectant. Now it’s utterly anonymous—physical characteristics shrouded, name and gender unknown, an object waiting to be discarded.

Photojournalist Joshua Irwandi made the image while shadowing Indonesian hospital workers as part of a National Geographic Society grant. The photograph ricocheted through the nation of 270 million people, which has been slow to fight the global pandemic.

“It’s clear that the power of this image has galvanized discussion about coronavirus,” Irwandi said from his home in Indonesia.

But is it enough to change the trajectory of the pandemic in Indonesia, where the Johns Hopkins University Coronavirus Tracker reported 4,665 deaths and 95,418 cases as of July 24—a toll believed to be vastly undercounted?

This sort of question arises every time a...

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