After being labelled the “patient zero” of an outbreak of COVID, a Congolese-Canadian physician says he became a target for racist threats, a pariah in his community, and a “scapegoat” for local officials.
When Dr Jean-Robert Ngola heard that he had to pick up his daughter last May, he quickly did the maths.
His daughter lived in Montreal with her mother, about seven hours away from his home in Campbellton, New Brunswick.
In order to get her and have contact with as few people as possible, he hopped in his car and drove all day, spending the night at his brother’s before driving her back.
New Brunswick has one of the strictest quarantine policies in Canada. Along with several other eastern provinces, it has formed an “Atlantic bubble” – in the early months of the pandemic, most forms of travel into the bubble were restricted, and anyone entering had to quarantine for 14 days.
But as a frontline worker, he says police told him he was exempt.
Not wanting to leave his patients without a doctor, he decided to go back to work.
On 25 May, Dr Ngola heard that one of his patients had been diagnosed with the virus. He got tested, and began to self-isolate with his four-year-old daughter.
At 11am on 27 May, he learned he, too, had the virus, although he had no symptoms.
Then, his life began to fall apart. Within the hour, his identity began to spread online. Later in the afternoon, Premier Blaine Higgs, who leads the provincial government, was chastising him on live television.
At least two other people had contracted coronavirus “due to the actions of one irresponsible individual,” Mr Higgs said, after nearly two weeks without a single case.
Although the premier did not name Dr Ngola directly, by that time, people had connected the dots, and photographs of his office were circulating online.
Provincial health officials told the media Dr Ngola had contracted the disease in the neighbouring province of Quebec, and spread it to others because he did not follow the 14-day mandatory quarantine for people who had been out of New Brunswick.
But Dr Ngola, and his lawyer Joel Etienne, say the rules were not clear, and Dr Ngola was following the same practices as people around him.
They also dispute the province’s claim that he was “patient zero”.
Although no criminal charges were filed, Dr Ngola faces a civil charge for violating the Emergency Measures Act and could face a fine up to C$10,200 ($7,600, £6,000). The case is currently making its way before the courts.
His employer, Vitalité Health Network, immediately suspended him without pay for breaking protocols.
“I was the scapegoat. As soon as my diagnosis is made… one hour later, my life changed,” he said.
In a statement to the BBC, a spokesperson for Vitalite confirmed that Dr Ngola’s suspension continues, and declined to comment further.
The premier’s office did not respond to the BBC’s request for comment.
The reaction from the community was swift and brutal. Dr Ngola, who is originally from the Democratic Republic of Congo, said people were telling him to “go back to Africa” and other forms of racist abuse.
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