Indonesian journalist Najwa Shihab ‘interviews’ empty chair in place of Health Minister Terawan Agus Putranto

Celebrated Indonesian journalist Najwa Shihab gave the country arguably the most iconic takedown of the government’s handling of the COVID-19 crisis by “interviewing” an empty chair.

In a video published for her talkshow Mata Najwa on Narasi TV yesterday, Najwa said she had invited Health Minister Terawan Agus Putranto several times for a face-to-face interview regarding his and his ministry’s handling of the crisis. As she said she never got a call back from the minister, what followed was this four-minute video of her in the studio directing her questions to an empty chair where Terawan would have sat.

“Why have you disappeared, sir? You rarely appear in front of the public to explain about this pandemic. It seems like the only health minister in the world this low profile during the crisis is Indonesia’s. Is your presence in front of the public not so important?” Najwa asked as she began her queries, which, obviously, went unanswered.

Terawan, of course, has been largely MIA during the COVID-19 crisis in Indonesia. Instead of giving the public hope or even updates on the situation, he may well go down in history as a joke of a health official; one who suggested that prayer shielded Indonesia from the coronavirus back when the country had yet to register a single confirmed COVID-19 case.

But now, seven months on, the virus is raging in Indonesia with little signs of the outbreak slowing down. Najwa took aim at Terawan’s perceived inactivity during this period, asking the vacant chair to explain the high death rate of medical workers and why the minister has not stepped down amid all his failures and repeated reprimands from President Joko Widodo.

“So many health ministers stepped down because of their COVID-19 handling. For example, the health ministers in New Zealand, Czech Republic, Poland, Brazil, Chile, Pakistan, Israel’s public health director, Canada’s public health agency president. My question is, sir, is our handling better than those countries?”

Najwa ended the video with an open invitation for Terawan to appear in her show and answer her questions himself. As iconic and as apt has this interview with a chair has become, we do hope Terawan rises to the challenge to face the grilling head on.

It would also be great if the search for accountability, whether by Najwa or otherwise, goes beyond Terawan. After all, if the health minister — who was banned from practice by the Indonesian Doctors Association (IDI) between 2018 and 2019 for serious ethical misconduct by promoting an untested “cure” for stroke — has so far refused to resign, why hasn’t the president stepped in to relieve him of his duties?

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