When the province of New Brunswick went into one of the toughest lockdowns in May 2020, Jean-Robert Ngola, a family doctor got a call to come and pick up his 4-year-old daughter in Montreal. The trip to Montreal would end with his life in shambles.
While remembering what happened to him, Ngola said: “I was treated like a criminal, but I did nothing wrong. I was doing my job.”
The 51-year-old Ngola, who came from Democratic Republic of Congo, was criminally charged by Canadian authorities with starting an outbreak of coronavirus. One year later, prosecutors dropped the charges, just days before his case was set to go to trial.
Scapegoating occurred all over the world last year when COVID-19 first spread. Asians were particularly singled out, unfairly, for transmitting the virus. Also, medical professionals were sometimes blamed and ostracized.
“Now I’m not a criminal,” Ngola said. “I can continue life like a human being.”
Ngola’s problem started when his former wife had to go for a family funeral in Africa. Ngola got in touch with local police and he was told it was OK to travel — so he travelled seven hours to Montreal, passed the night at his brother’s place, picke his daughter, and returned home.
Health officials advised him that he could go back to attending to patients, and did not have to quarantine, since he did not feel he had been exposed.
However, one of Ngola’s patients tested positive for COVID-19 while he tested positive on May 27, 2020. Though he had no symptoms, he went into quarantine. Later on that day, the premier of New Brunswick, Blaine Higgs, talked about the outbreak during a press conference and mentioned “patient zero.”
Higgs said: “This is a health care worker who saw multiple patients over a two-week period following their return to New Brunswick.
“We’re still contact tracing, but we know this zone is at a higher risk due to the actions of one irresponsible individual.”
Though Ngola’s name was not mentioned by the Premier, it that leaked online, and with a little investigation, people got Ngola’s address and photo. His whole life changed completely.
He was suspended by his employer without pay. Also, people attacked him online and gathered outside his home, giving him death threats and racist taunts, asking him to “go back to Africa.” He had to request for police protection.
During that period authorities commenced a criminal investigation against him for not isolating.
Joel Etienne, Ngola’s attorney, said some people falsely accused him of breaking quarantine.
He said: “The police would show up and accuse [Jean-Robert Ngola] of not self-quarantining.”
“People would be congregating in places of commerce and they would see a person of color, and they would call the authorities and say, ‘Oh, the good doctor is not quarantining. You need to run the police to his house. And the police would show up and accuse him of not self-quarantining.”
A total of 41 people were infected during that outbreak, and two deaths were recorded. However, doctors rallied to defend him. 1,500 physicians signed a letter blaming systemic racism for his treatment in September 2020.
Etienne said: “This is clearly an example [of] how a person of immigrant background, a person who is African Canadian, was absolutely marginalized, penalized and could have lost his life over this because the outrage was that palpable at the time.”
A Quebec Mayor heard Ngola’s story and invited him to live and work in Quebec. Ngola took him up on the offer. If Ngola was found guilty, he could have been slapped with over $8,000 in fines. His trial was scheduled for June 15, but prosecutors back pedalled, saying they had been provided with evidence that proved they had little chance to convict.
Yet, it’s not totally over for Ngola. He still wants something: an apology from the premier, Higgs.
Ngola said: “The apology means the beginning of the healing. I cannot change the past, but I have to prepare myself for the future.”
Higgs has so far refused the invitation to apologize.
While talking to reporters, Higgs said: “If I recall, at the time, it was when we had our first fatality in the long journey of COVID and we needed to make sure everyone was following the rules carefully and taking every case and every situation seriously.”
Higgs said it was unfortunate if Ngola misconceived his comments and took his comments personal. Ngola’s attorneys have revealed that they’re contemplating suing for damages.