Charge withdrawn against New Brunswick doctor blamed for COVID-19 outbreak

The defence team for Dr. Jean-Robert Ngola is calling for an “unequivocal apology” from New Brunswick’s premier after the Crown dropped its charge against the family doctor who had been blamed for being the source of an COVID-19 outbreak.

Ngola, 51, was labelled “patient zero” in May 2020 after a brief out-of-province trip, driving overnight to pick up his four-year-old daughter in Montreal. He was charged last August with violating the provincial Emergency Measures Act for failing to quarantine when he returned.

If he had been found guilty, Ngola would have had to pay a fine ranging from $240 to $10,200. 

In court, prosecutor Sebastian Michaud said the Crown was withdrawing its charge but did not give a reason as to why.

Now that the legal matter has been resolved, Ngola’s legal team says Premier Blaine Higgs can no longer hide behind “outstanding provincial court matters” and needs to apologize for his role in the ordeal that led to racist threats, a suspension and a charge against the doctor.

Premier Blaine Higgs initially blamed the Campbellton outbreak in May 2020 on an ‘irresponsible medical professional’ without identifying Ngola. (Government of New Brunswick)

“This is the third time that we are publicly asking you as a man who purports to be a person of faith to respectfully and unequivocally apologize to Dr. Jean-Robert Ngola Monzinga,” wrote lawyers Joel Etienne and Christian Michaud in a letter to the premier.

The letter further states that there “was no factual or scientific basis to justify the enormous deployment of more than 21 RCMP criminal investigators against Dr. Ngola.”

Blamed within hours

Ngola’s problems began more than a year ago, with a positive COVID-19 test result on the morning of May 27, 2020.  An hour later, his name was leaked on a Campbellton Facebook group as “patient zero.” That afternoon at a news conference, Higgs blamed an “irresponsible medical professional” for a cluster of cases and the resurgence of the virus in the province.

The premier did not identify Ngola by name, but two hours after Higgs’s remarks, Ngola was suspended without pay from his job at Vitalité Health Network. Along with being a family doctor, Ngola also worked in the emergency room at the Campbellton Regional Hospital.

A day later, Higgs said the investigation into Ngola had been turned over to the RCMP, although court documents would reveal that police had yet to receive an official complaint. The region’s public health officer, who was conducting her own contact tracing investigation, refused to turn over information to the police citing patient confidentiality. 

Instead, Dr. Mariane Pâquet urged police to protect Ngola who was subjected to increasing racist attacks, including threats that called for his “lynching.”

Ngola was practising as a family doctor and in the emergency room of the Campbellton Regional Hospital, above. He now works at a clinic in Louisville, Que. (Shane Fowler/CBC)

‘Treated like a criminal’

Reached at his clinic in Louiseville, Que., where he now works as a family doctor, Ngola says he wants an apology from the premier because he was treated “like a criminal for contracting the virus.”

“It’s an injustice,” said Ngola, who says he felt “harassed” by police who continued to investigate him even when it was clear he had not committed any crime.

Ngola says the experience has impacted his confidence. Even though he now practices medicine in another province, Ngola says he’s often stopped by strangers who ask about his legal troubles. He feels under constant scrutiny by patients and worries that if he treats them too quickly they will second-guess the medical care he is providing.

In September, a CBC Fifth Estate investigation revealed that it was unlikely that Ngola was patient zero for a number of reasons. First, about 10 per cent of hospital staff and 20 per cent of patients at the Campbellton Regional Hospital where he worked also crossed the river regularly into Quebec — because they live there.  Second, it was unlikely that contact tracing could be completed in the three hours from the time Ngola received his positive test to the premier’s news conference.

“The premier was quick as possible to believe the negative,” said Ngola. “He should be an honourable human being and admit he made a mistake.”

Ngola did admit to CBC that he returned to work after his trip and did not follow the hospital’s COVID-19 protocols, which specified that anyone who travelled outside of New Brunswick — except those who commute from Quebec or Maine — had to self-isolate for 14 days upon their return.

Ngola said that there was a lot of confusion at the time around COVID-19 measures and that other doctors he worked with had also not self-isolated after travelling out of province. He told CBC News he took precautions while travelling.

Lawyers mull civil suit

The RCMP dropped its criminal investigation in August 2020 but opted to proceed with a provincial charge that comes with a potentially hefty fine.

Higgs has previously said that he didn’t know the identity of the doctor when he made his remarks.

 “I had no knowledge of the individual until it appeared in social media,” Higgs said last summer. “The concern I had throughout this pandemic is that we have to be conscious. We rely heavily on our medical professionals. It was disappointing because it resulted in a situation where we had two fatalities.”

In their statement, Ngola’s lawyers say the premier should have been aware of the incendiary nature of his remarks and suggested that an underlying racism against people of colour played a part.

“There is a terrible systemic racism history in North America of using the dog whistle against racialized citizens and labelling them as the ‘bringer of diseases,’ and this has to stop,” said lawyer Christian Michaud in a statement.

In their letter to the premier, Michaud and Etienne give Higgs a deadline of seven days to apologize and to come to “a respectful and appropriate resolution.”

If not, they write, Ngola has authorized them to “move matters forward” with a civil suit that’s ready to be filed.

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