Thrust From Labs to Sudden Fame, Some Health Officials Stumble

(Bloomberg) --

Quebec’s top health official, Horacio Arruda, won over the Canadian province with frank talk and GIF-inspiring hand gestures to encourage flattening the coronavirus curve. His face appeared on everything from T-shirts to bread loaves. Then came the rap video.

Juxtaposed with local musician Rod le Stod, Arruda gyrates to lyrics calling him the lightning rod in the storm. The song was meant to be complimentary, but as deaths in Montreal topped 100 a day, Arruda’s take struck the wrong note. Just like that, public opinion shifted. Forced to apologize, he said he didn’t mean to make light of Quebec’s crisis.

“I look at the number of deaths and my heart aches, so it was never my intention to hurt anyone,” he told reporters. “Never will I again use social media this way.”

The global pandemic has thrust the world’s sharpest medical minds into a spotlight brighter than an operating room. Some have handled it with aplomb, giving rise to a new generation of heroes complete with the requisite memes, fan fiction and merchandise. Others have tested the lockdown-shortened patience of the public, thanks to an internet that leaves nowhere to hide.

“We turn to our specialists and we give them all the power, all the confidence, all the trust that we have because we believe that they will help us get over this crisis,” said Elke Van Hoof, a professor of health psychology at Vrije Universiteit Brussel. “When time passes, we experience the fact that these people are humans and not gods.”

Thrust From Labs to Sudden Fame, Some Health Officials Stumble

When a group of trainee doctors in Japan was outed for breaking social-distancing rules to host a drinking party -- and many became infected -- the derision was understandable. In other cases, the court of public opinion is harsh.

The head of the Finnish Institute for Health and Welfare delivered wise advice at a news conference on preventing virus spread, and then proceeded to ignore the advice himself: Visibly ill, he kept reusing tissues and touching his face. The Twitter response was merciless.

Arruda’s rap video should have been a harmless -- even healthy -- release, Van Hoof says. But it hit just as the public mood shifted from solidarity to fatigue. “We move through these phases, from honeymoon to disillusion, and in the disillusion phase people we’ve put our trust in previously become the target of our frustration and our anger.”

Most of the world is now in that second stage, Van Hoof says. That leaves little room for even the perception of missteps, much less actual gaffes. In the last month, Neil Ferguson, one of Britain’s most important scientific advisers, was compelled to resign after “secret” lockdown visits with his married girlfriend triggered an outcry. While some praised him for falling on his sword, others bemoaned a loss that seemed out of proportion to the lapse in judgment.

Going Rogue

The speed of a public figure’s ascent can be problematic. Covid-19 has taken virologists, epidemiologists and immunologists -- whose careers are typically built in obscure labs over years of methodical research -- and catapulted them to celebrity. Few have been adequately prepared and, with the public hanging on their every word, some overreach.

A doctor on Romania’s anti-Covid-19 committee, Adrian Streinu-Cercel, unveiled a virus-fighting plan all on his own, dubbing it “The Summer Vacation.” Among the vacation’s dubious amusements: putting people from ages 40 to 65 in total isolation, separating everyone over 65 from their families for months and suspending taxes. The doctor said his plan “would resonate with people, and an eight-week break or so would successfully allow measures to prevent the spread of the disease to be taken.”

It didn’t resonate with Romania’s president, who rejected the proposal. Streinu-Cercel was kicked off the committee, though he remains in charge of the nation’s biggest hospital for infectious disease.

Thrust From Labs to Sudden Fame, Some Health Officials Stumble

Marseille-based researcher Didier Raoult was an award-winning microbiologist known in France for his biker looks and irreverent style. But he reached folk-hero status amid the pandemic by touting his unconventional studies using the malaria drug hydroxychloroquine.

Before starting his own trials, Raoult hailed Chinese test results in a YouTube video where he called Covid-19 “probably the easiest respiratory infection to treat.” That there is little evidence suggesting the drug is effective against coronavirus hasn’t swayed his fans, including President Donald Trump, who said he has started taking it himself.

Fame and attention are as addictive as drugs, says Hollywood publicist Michael Levine. “There are people -- and doctors are people -- who are very drawn to that attention wave,” Levine says.

Still, he’d advise any doctor-client that social media poses a risk by allowing celebrity to precede achievement.

Thrust From Labs to Sudden Fame, Some Health Officials Stumble

By contrast, there’s Jonas Salk, the American virologist who developed one of the first successful polio vaccines almost 70 years ago. In 1953, Salk announced his success on a national radio show two days before publishing an article in the Journal of the American Medical Association. A year later, he was on the cover of Time Magazine -- a slingshot to fame for the period, but one based on results.

Anthony Fauci, the 79-year-old director of the U.S. National Institute of Allergy and Infectious Diseases, has been hailed as unafraid to speak truth to power. To a vocal minority, though, he’s a villain who undermines Trump; vitriol has been so intense he’s been assigned extra security. Because Fauci’s authority flows from decades of scientific success, his legacy is secure, Levine says. “I think Dr. Fauci is fine.”

For high-profile doctors who haven’t banked a half-century of experience, the job increasingly includes managing public opinion and a personal brand.

Television appearances by Jung Eun-kyeong, head of South Korea’s Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, have led to fan sites and suggestions she run for prime minister. She has also adeptly fielded inquiries from those concerned she’s not getting enough rest.

Thrust From Labs to Sudden Fame, Some Health Officials Stumble

In Canada, British Columbia’s chief medical officer, Bonnie Henry, inspired a limited edition Mary Jane-style shoe -- $240 a pair with all profits going to a food bank. It was so popular, shoppers from as far away as New Zealand, Europe and Australia crashed the website of designer John Fluevog when it debuted.

The province has one of North America’s lowest death rates, and much of the credit has gone to Henry, a former military doctor whose human touch and soothing mantra -- “Be kind, be calm, be safe” -- has kept residents compliant. Henry further endeared herself when she apologized to her hairdresser for attempting her own highlights.

“In the long run, people who rely on time-tested principles of honesty and truthfulness and not overreaching are going to be rewarded,” Levine says. “But they may not be rewarded in the short run.”

©2020 Bloomberg L.P.

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