For Canadian Doctor, the Virus Came With Stigma

TORONTO — He is a doctor in a small city in New Brunswick, Canada, who drove to pick up his 4-year-old daughter — and to have a job interview — and then came home.

Two weeks later, he and his daughter tested positive for the coronavirus. The same day, he was denounced by the provincial government and the internet, and suspended from his hospital job without pay. Then the police opened a criminal investigation into him.

His crime?

He traveled across the border into the neighboring province of Quebec, and returned without self-isolating, breaking a New Brunswick emergency act, the authorities say. They also say he brought the coronavirus with him, sparking an outbreak. He says that’s not true.

The story of the doctor, Jean Robert Ngola Monzinga, captures the fear and uncertainty this pandemic has unleashed on the world. While it has brought some communities together, it has turned others against one another. In some places, doctors and nurses have been physically attacked and ostracized as perceived vectors of the disease.

The story also raises a fundamental question that many countries are grappling with as they loosen lockdowns: What is the proper balance between collective responsibility and individual freedom?

Some say Dr. Ngola’s example shows the calamitous effect a single person’s carelessness can have; others say it highlights the danger of scapegoating individuals for suffering unleashed by a virus that will be with us for the foreseeable future.

Weeks after he was diagnosed with the virus, Dr. Ngola remains hidden in his home, not even leaving for groceries for fear he will be targeted. He is an easy mark — a rare black man and immigrant in the shrinking mill city of Campbellton, who trained as a doctor during the civil war in the Democratic Republic of Congo. He believes racism played a role in his public denunciation and shaming.

“I have been treated like a criminal,” said Dr. Ngola in a telephone interview. “I am a destroyed person.”

Dr. Jennifer Russell, chief medical officer of the small eastern province of New Brunswick, said, “We have a big problem on our hands.”

“I am very, very, very concerned about how to move forward and recover from this as a province in trying to reduce the stigma for all people,” she said, adding, “We need to change our culture and conversation toward support and understanding.”

Campbellton, a city of just 7,000, is set on the Restigouche River, which separates New Brunswick from Quebec. Even before the uproar surrounding Dr. Ngola, the response to the coronavirus had caused tension and complaints of discrimination.

The New Brunswick emergency measure effectively cut off two Quebec communities that operate like suburban neighborhoods of Campbellton — the sleepy village of Pointe-à-la-Croix, and the Mi’gmaq nation of Listuguj, where there are 3,000 residents but no grocery or clothing stores. Instead, they would take the short journey across the river to shop, go to restaurants, seek medical care and attend school.

Although the emergency measure allows nonresidents to cross into Campbellton for “the necessities of life,” many complained they felt unwelcome at best and criminalized at worst, regularly targeted, they said, by calls to a provincial hotline set up to report rulebreakers.

A van carrying elders back from a New Brunswick hospital, where they had gotten dialysis, was surrounded by police, said Darcy Gray, chief of the Listuguj First Nation.

“There is now this feeling, ‘Stay on your side, you don’t belong over here’,” said Chief Gray, a former counselor at the English-language Campbellton high school, where Listoguj students go. “You didn’t have an issue with us three months ago. Or did you?”

Fourteen days after Dr. Ngola’s 28-hour trip, Blaine Higgs, New Brunswick’s premier, and Dr. Russell, the province’s chief medical officer, announced that after weeks of few transmissions and only two active cases in the whole province, an outbreak had occurred.

They blamed a “health care worker” who, Mr. Higgs said, had been “irresponsible,” and broken the province’s emergency measure, which banned unnecessary travel out of New Brunswick and demanded every returning resident self-isolate for 14 days.

This worker, Mr. Higgs said, had traveled to Quebec for personal reasons and the next day returned to work in the hospital.

Over the next three weeks, some 40 people would be infected, including two who died — marking the first fatalities to the virus in the province.

“All the contact tracing was done, and it was determined that this was a travel-related case,” Dr. Russell said. “That means it was brought in from outside the province.”

New Brunswick, among the first provinces to emerge from lockdown, then delayed the reopening of churches and swimming pools.

The region around Campbellton, where Dr. Ngola moved in 2013 to open a family medical practice and work in the hospital’s emergency room, re-shuttered hair salons and barber shops.

The emergency room closed, since many other employees had been in contact with him.

While the hospital, like the government, did not identify Dr. Ngola, his name and photo quickly appeared on Facebook and were shared thousands of times, soliciting many derogatory comments.

Many in town were furious.

“That somebody could be so careless, to put us all back in so much danger,” said Rodney Harquail, the owner of a hotel and restaurant that was on cusp of reopening after two months. “And to find out this guy is a doctor — the arrogance.”

He blames Dr. Ngola for costing him thousands of dollars from customers who were too scared to come.

“There are protocols in place for every citizen to follow,” said a town councilor, Gilbert Cyr. “It has nothing to do with color or race.”

Others were more forgiving.

“Yes, the doctor should not have done what he did,” said Luc Couturier, president of the Downtown Campbellton Business Improvement Association. “But it could happen to anybody, anywhere.”

  • Updated June 16, 2020

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He added, “You can’t stop it until there’s a vaccine or a cure.”

Dr. Ngola’s lawyer said race, not the rules or science, triggered his swift denunciation.

Many hospital workers come in and out from Quebec, the lawyer, Joel Etienne, pointed out in a letter last week to Premier Higgs, demanding an apology. Others hired to work temporary jobs in hospitals were not required to self-isolate.

“The difference between them and Dr. Ngola is Dr. Ngola’s race,” Mr. Etienne argued.

Dr. Ngola, 50, does not believe he brought the virus into the province. “No one can say they are patient zero,” he said. “We are in the middle of a pandemic.”

“I am convinced I got it in New Brunswick at my work,” he said. “I can’t blame anyone. I’m a soldier on the front line.”

Dr. Ngola said he traveled to Quebec to pick up his daughter, whose mother had left for a family funeral in the Democratic Republic of Congo, leaving the child with a relative in a Montreal suburb.

“My little daughter was alone,” Dr. Ngola said on a French-language radio show, La Matinale. “What should I have done?”

On their eight-hour drive back to Campbellton, he stopped at a medical clinic in Trois-Rivières for a job interview with two doctors.

He did not tell his employer about the trip, he said.

The example of Dr. Ngola might stop others from breaking the rules for fear of public humiliation. But it won’t stop further infections, experts say.

“It’s not a question of one person screwing everything up,” said Susan Kirkland, the head of the department of community health and epidemiology at Dalhousie University in Halifax. “That’s the nature of the disease until we get a vaccine.”

The virus can be spread by asymptomatic people, she pointed out.

Frank McKenna, a former New Brunswick premier, said the focus should be on how the province dealt with the outbreak: Public health units quickly tested more than 4,000 people and, through rapid contact tracing, placed some 300 into self-isolation.

“The province was very adroit at dealing with a predictable event — an infestation,” Mr. McKenna said. “We are a microcosm of what will happen right across North America.”

Dr. Ngola is hoping to return to the hospital “with dignity” and slowly shut down his practice, so his patients can be transferred to another doctor. He can’t imagine remaining in Campbellton.

“I am not comfortable going for a walk or even driving to downtown; especially since I’m with a little girl,” he said. “The psychological impacts are horrible. I will need therapy. That is certain.”

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