What the rise and fall of Horacio Arruda tells us about Canada’s long and strange pandemic journey

Quebec Premier François Legault did not spend long acknowledging the resignation of his top public health official during his news conference this week.

He simply thanked the director of public health, Dr. Horacio Arruda, for his service, named his replacement, and moved on to announce a tax on the unvaccinated, a policy that some suggested was designed to divert attention from his government’s handling of this latest wave of the COVID-19 Pandemic.

It seemed like an ignominious end for the man who had held that position for almost a decade; who had sat next to the prime minister and health minister for most of the last 22 months in briefing after briefing, offering the latest battle plans against the pandemic.

All that has changed now. Arruda will take a few weeks off before returning to civil service, once again watching from the shadows as another man takes his place at the prime minister’s side.

But his resignation offers insight into the pandemic path of Arruda and his counterparts in every province and territory: that, metaphorically speaking, you either die a hero or live long enough to see yourself become the villain.

In the months after March 2020, across the country, medical directors of health, many of whom stepped into the spotlight for the first time, found themselves hailed as heroes or role models. People sang their praises, made posters of them, bought the clothes they wore.

Almost two years later, many things have changed; now, for many, it’s about online abuse, calls for resignations and, in some cases, death threats.

Arruda, 61, was colourful, talkative and outgoing, endearing himself to Quebecers in the early days of the pandemic.

“I don’t want to upset people. I don’t want to make people anxious,” Arruda said in those early days. “Don’t be anxious. If you are anxious, call someone, try to have an activity that you like.”

He planned to bake Portuguese tarts himself, he said, before sharing his recipe with all of Quebec.

Quebecers plastered his face on T-shirts, on loaves of bread. They sent him gifts and handmade cards. A Montreal art studio even created a small 3D printed statue of him.

But that was then. This is almost two years later. This is the Omicron wave.

As the province reels through a fifth wave of the pandemic, with skyrocketing hospitalization rates and ICU cases prompting another curfew and another series of closures, an outpouring of public anger, including calls for resignations has headed towards him.

In his letter of resignation, Arruda alluded to the change in direction of public opinion.

“Recent comments about the credibility of our views and our scientific rigor are undoubtedly causing some erosion of public support,” he masterfully wrote.

It became a lightning rod for public exasperation at the public health decisions made by the Legault government, at shifting messages about how to deal with the virus, and ultimately at misdirected anger at the virus itself.

The rise and fall of Horacio Arruda gives us a glimpse of the character arc of his counterparts across the country.

Once lauded and feted as our guides through the coronavirus wilderness, some have also been punished, not least as the public grows weary of yet another round of social restrictions and wary of yet another shifting set of public health guidelines.

Alberta's chief medical officer of health, Dr. Deena Hinshaw, in March 2020. This summer suffered greatly as cases and deaths increased in Alberta.

In Alberta in early 2020, Chief Medical Officer of Health Dr. Deena Hinshaw was immortalized in song; “Dr. Deena” was called “a provincial treasure.”

When she wore a dress with the periodic table of elements during a COVID briefing in March, demand for the dress skyrocketed to the point that it was sold out.

But after Alberta Premier Jason Kenney’s “best summer ever” flopped, causing cases and hospitalizations to skyrocket, Hinshaw found himself apologizing for “confusion, fear or anger.” from the public on behalf of her boss as calls for her resignation rained down on her.

In BC, provincial health officer Dr. Bonnie Henry was widely praised in early 2020, including by the international media, for her handling of the growing pandemic.

Vancouver transit cited their “Be Kind Be Calm Be Safe” on their fare cards, a modern day “Keep Calm and Carry On”. Shoe designer John Fluevog named a pair of shoes after him.

But in the months that followed there was unrelenting criticism for the shifting messages, and there was social media harassment and death threats, along with Hinshaw, that made security at his home necessary.

Dr. Bonnie Henry, British Columbia Provincial Health Officer, in March 2020. Praised nationally and internationally that spring, she too found that changing science and difficult decisions led to unpopularity and threats.

In Ontario, former chief medical officer of health Dr. David Williams faced a rocky road from near the start of the pandemic, as some critics berated him for failing to stand up to Prime Minister Doug Ford, while others accused him of not fully understand the situation. Williams resigned from the position at the end of May 2021.

Others, like Nova Scotia’s Dr. Robert Strang, have weathered the coronavirus storm better, though that may be related to the Atlantic province’s overall track record with the pandemic. Even there, as Omicron’s wave drives record spikes in cases and hospitalizations, cracks are beginning to show in the appearance of Strang’s popularity.

But that, in essence, is part of the job of the medical director of health.

Like Arruda’s Shakespearean namesake, they are at court without a title, minor figures there to add credence to Hamlet’s actions no matter how unbelievable they may seem.

It’s an unwieldy position to begin with, says Daniel Béland, director of the McGill Institute for the Study of Canada at McGill University. They offer advice that is not always heeded, based on information that changes based on what we have learned most recently.

“It’s a very, very difficult job,” Béland says of Arruda’s job. “As director of public health, he is the one who provides scientific advice.

“But in the end, the political decisions are made by the prime minister and the government.”

That’s part of the problem when public officials step out of the shadows and into the spotlight, Béland says.

“In most circumstances, public officials are not that visible to the public,” says Béland. “They provide advice in the background.

“People who came out of the dark, people who weren’t known, who you never see on TV, all of a sudden they start showing up there every day. And they have memes and GIFs on social media. They became celebrities.”

Two Calgary clothing manufacturers and a local artist have teamed up on a line of T-shirts honoring three now-famous public health officials.  A composite image of three photos shows T-shirts bearing the portraits of Alberta Chief Medical Officer Dr. Deena Hinshaw, left, Canada's Chief Public Health Officer Dr. Theresa Tam, and BC Chief Medical Officer Dr. Dr. Bonnie Henry.

That makes them, over time, the face of the battle against the pandemic. And not coincidentally, bearers of the brunt of the anger, fair or not, when the population gets fed up.

Medical health officials also get a lot of flak for changing their messages over time, Béland says. But those messages, in theory, are based on the best science available at the time, and as researchers learn more about the coronavirus, those guidelines are sure to change to reflect new and improved knowledge.

“When you’re in a scientific perspective, you understand that when new data comes in, especially with a virus where the virus itself keeps changing, you have to change along with it in terms of the advice you give,” says University. by Toronto psychology professor Steve Joordens.

“But that becomes a lever for those who don’t like it to say, ‘You said this then and you’re saying this now.’ You are not trustworthy.

“That’s a complicated dynamic, being in the public sphere doing what scientists do, which is changing their position on things as the data comes in.”

A recent Leger poll indicates that a slim majority of Canadians support the latest round of restrictions and blockades pushed by Omicron. Pollsters suggest that while support for vaccines is very high, there is a growing level of fatigue among Canadians and growing frustration with those who refuse to get vaccinated.

Initially in 2020, Joordens says, we all agreed. Then, he says, we all agreed that we needed to prevent the public health system from collapsing.

“We were all completely and 100 percent there,” he says. “But vaccines have actually made things murkier.

“There’s this notion that, ‘If I’m triple vaccinated now, why are there restrictions? Why can’t I go to a restaurant?’”

It is this audience, and a very vocal minority, largely unvaccinated, that medical health officials are now trying to reach.

It can be a largely thankless task.

“Their intentions are to help, to try to do the best they can, to keep the system going. And when people start to associate them with other intentions, I think you really start to think, ‘Why am I doing this? Because I’m getting hit with all this negativity when I’m trying my best to be a positive force.

For many, looking at the roles of Arruda and his counterparts after two years of the pandemic is short-sighted at best.

But Joordens is among those who hope that when the pandemic finally comes and goes, with the clarity of hindsight, the efforts of those who came out into the open during a crisis will not be forgotten.


Leave a Comment