The Politicization of Dr. Horacio Arruda, Québec’s Public Health Director

Originally published on on May 13, 2020.

This week, we have seen Québec’s director of public health Dr. Horacio Arruda’s image become increasingly politicized through a series of unorthodox media appearances. Through a variety of visual technologies, Dr. Arruda has shifted from health authority to political symbol. What does this say about the Legault government and its handling of the current pandemic?

Dr. Arruda’s public image has been an interesting one to follow since the beginning of the pandemic. Throughout the first weeks of the initial confinement period, as previously explored on this blog, his presence alongside Premier François Legault during daily press conference was strategic. This is in contrast with other jurisdictions where the Head of State speaks at a different time and place than their designated public health officials. This is sometimes done due to simple physical distancing protocols, but it also serves to insist on the independence of the public health authorities who are, in the case of Québec and Canada, mandated to advise the government on issues of public health and to make valuable information available to the public. Unlike the Minister of Health, public health authorities are not meant to act in ways that might favour particular politicians, become spokespeople for elected officials, and especially not make promises regarding government policies. Dr. Arruda has recently blurred the lines between these two categories.

Here is his transformation in four key images.

The Initial Transition

Jacques Boissinot- The Canadian Press

As reported by Le Devoir, there has been a slow but steady transitional phase to this change of roles that might have gone unnoticed by some. Guillaume Bourgault-Côté, Antoine Béland Et Jean-Philippe Corbeil write that an analysis of the time allotted during daily press conferences to Dr. Arruda has slowly decreased to the benefit of the Minister of Health, Danielle McCann. This follows a change in the main topics addressed during the daily conferences. As the focus went from Dr. Arruda to Minister McCann, the government’s priorities also shifted from public health to crisis management. At this point, it was becoming clearer to the public that the severity of the health crisis caused by the COVID-19 pandemic had more to do with years of cutting health services to vulnerable populations than anything else, the main sites of contagion being publicly funded elderly care centers and underserved, mainly low-income and immigrant neighbourhoods of Montreal.

The use of screen time by the government is indicative of the narrative they are trying to build. With less Dr. Arruda and more Minister McCann on television, the importance is placed on management rather than health recommendations. This focal turn to an elected official rather than the much beloved public health director thus marks the beginning of the politicization of the pandemic by the Legault government.

The Visit to Montréal-Nord

Photo: Pierre Obendrauf

The intent to move from public health to politics did not last very long. As the government noticed that the public had already grown quite infatuated with Dr. Arruda. The next step would be to repurpose him to push a narrative of governmental preparedness. Dr. Arruda would begin to present himself as a hybrid figure to the public. He would be placed in positions traditionally reserved for elected officials in an attempt to further this transition to the full politicization of the crisis. The goal? Have him be authority and leader. How? Have him campaign.

On Thursday, May 8th, Dr. Arruda made his way to Montréal-Nord, the most affected borough of Montreal. Dr. Arruda was placed front and center in all photo ops and televised interviews, a shift from his previous erasure. His authority was no longer as advisor, but rather as leader, physically, visually, and narratively placing him at the centre of the fight against COVID-19.

Alongside the mayor of the city, Valerie Plante, he spoke of massive testing in the area and the new STM bus turned mobile clinic. The problem, as reported by Patrick Lagacé for La Presse, is that none of these things happened. The central testing clinic in Montreal-Nord was closed, and that bus turned testing center has been everywhere in the city except for, you guessed it, Montréal-Nord. We are already stepping out of mandate.

On Tuesday, May 12th, Dr. Arruda said during the daily conference that the clinic was closed because residence of the borough where not going. In a recent Facebook post, Mayor of Montréal-Nord Christine Black, expresses her concern over this statement which she claims are false. Arruda has since apologized for the claims.

We are now seeing frictions with elected officials.

The Viral Dance

Quickly following his visit to Montreal-Nord, Dr. Arruda took his new image to social media. He recorded himself dancing alongside Rod le Stod, a relatively new figure in the RapQueb scene. Rod le Stod promised that proceeds from the sales of the artist’s song “Oragio”, featured in the video, would go a youth shelter Refuge des jeunes. The organisation in question was not consulted previous to the release of the video and denied any association with either the rapper or Dr. Arruda.

Public backlash followed soon after it’s release with many asking why such a person was partaking in a social media challenge under these circumstances. Some have suggested that Arruda himself has perhaps bought into his own hype and has begun to believe himself to be a celebrity in his own right. As the death toll in Québec continues to climb, this was seen as a tone-deaf act of self-promotion.  

Another worrying aspect of the video are the lyrics of the featured song. “Oragio” is a playful take on the confinement period with references to homemade disinfectant, social distancing, and putting a pause on one’s dating life. The chorus, however, reveals a much more problematic take on the situation.

« Partout sur la terre y’a un oragio
Mon paratonnerre c’est Horacio
On est chanceux d’avoir François Legault
Suspends tous mes droits, j’te donne le go »

[Everywhere on Earth there’s a thunderstormMy lighting rod is HoracioWe’re lucky to have François LegaultSuspend all my rights, I give you the go-ahead]

The Public Apology

Photo: The Canadian Press

Yesterday, Tuesday May 12th, Dr. Arruda took some time during the daily press conference to address and apologize for his participation in the viral video de previous day. The apology marked an unprecedented expression of emotions for a COVID-19 public health update. Dr. Arruda teared up explaining that he has lost sleep over the increasing death toll in the province. While some have supported the public apology as a sign of humanity and honest regret for his decision, it can be understood as an unfortunate use of airtime dedicated to health updates. While addressing the issue, Dr. Arruda paused as he held back tears, the snapping of cameras increasing as he did so. The articles regarding that day’s press conference immediately centered around the image of the director’s teary eyes.

While it might not be immediately evident if Dr. Arruda is acting of his own volition or has been weaponized by the Legault government, what is clear is that this unorthodox use of visual media is jeopardizing his authority by turning his charisma into a political spectacle.

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