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Premier rejects calls to apologize to N.B. doctor after COVID-19-related charge withdrawn

New Brunswick Premier Blaine Higgs is rejecting calls to apologize to a family doctor who had been blamed for a COVID-19 outbreak in Campbellton last year and had a provincial charge against him dropped Friday, 11 days before his trial was set to begin.

Dr. Jean-Robert Ngola, 51, was labelled by some as “patient zero” in May 2020 after he tested positive for COVID-19 shortly after briefly driving out of the province on an overnight trip to pick up his four-year-old daughter in Montreal.  Campbellton is located on the Quebec border, across the Restigouche River from Pointe-à-la-Croix, Que.

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. 

Ngola’s trial was scheduled to start June 15, but in court Friday, Crown prosecutor Sébastien Michaud said the defence team provided evidence last month that showed there was no longer a reasonable probability of conviction. He didn’t say what that evidence was.

Lawyers call for premier to ‘unequivocally apologize’

Saying the legal matter was resolved, Ngola’s lawyers said Higgs could no longer hide behind “outstanding provincial court matters” and called on the premier to apologize for his role in the ordeal that led to racist threats, a suspension and a charge against the doctor.

blaine higgs
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.

There “was no factual or scientific basis to justify the enormous deployment of more than 21 RCMP criminal investigators against Dr. Ngola,” the letter said, referencing information found in court documents about the investigation. 

On Friday Higgs told reporters he didn’t feel he had anything to apologize for. 

“If I recall at the time it was when we had our first fatality there in the long journey of COVID, and we needed to ensure that everyone was following the rules carefully,” said Higgs during a visit to a vaccination clinic in Fredericton.

“It’s unfortunate that he took it personally,” he said. “I didn’t direct it. I didn’t name him.”

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.”

campbellton regional hospital
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 said the experience has impacted his confidence. Even though he now practises 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 gave Higgs a deadline of seven days to apologize and to come to “a respectful and appropriate resolution.”

If no apology comes, the lawyers say Ngola has authorized them to “move matters forward.”  

New Brunswick opposition critic to the Attorney General, Rob McKee said the withdrawal of a charge against Ngola is “not a surprising development.” 

“It would seem that the Crown believes there was not sufficient evidence to prove the charge,” said McKee in an emailed statement.

“As we indicated at the outset, the Premier’s actions were irresponsible in making this accusation that led to Dr. Ngola becoming the target of anger and harassment.” 

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