A doctor blamed as being patient zero in a 2020 COVID-19 outbreak in New Brunswick has launched a lawsuit against the province and the RCMP, alleging their actions incited a barrage of bullying and racism against him.
Dr. Jean-Robert Ngola, a family doctor who used to work in Campbellton, N.B., was singled out as patient zero in the outbreak, which resulted in 40 cases and two deaths.
The lawsuit claims the defendants not only sparked a harassment campaign against Ngola, but despite having knowledge of his innocence, colluded to investigate and prosecute him in an act of “political scapegoating.”
“Dr. Ngola’s is the first and only modern-day experience that a Canadian has ever had in relation to having to relocate because of a social banishment that was spurred on by a Premier, his Government, a police force, and Facebook/social media,” reads the statement of claim.
The lawsuit, filed Thursday morning by Ngola’s lawyers, also names Facebook as a defendant, alleging the social media giant was responsible for the rapid spread of hate and misinformation about his case.
Nearly two years after fleeing the province due to safety fears, Ngola still thinks about how quickly he went from being a valued medical professional to a social pariah.
“Why me?” questions Ngola, who has been trained to work in Congo, Belgium and Canada, and worked in Campbellton for seven years before his abrupt departure in 2020.
In an exclusive interview with Global News, the family doctor said he was forced out of New Brunswick by the racist abuse and community shunning that he faced after Premier Blaine Higgs blamed the outbreak on an “irresponsible” medical professional who failed to self-isolate after travel.
“I think the last two years, it was the most difficult of years in my life,” said Ngola, 52, who now resides and works in Louiseville, Que.
The lawsuit does not specify an amount for damages from the province and the RCMP. Ngola’s lawyer, Joel Etienne, said they are leaving that up to the courts due to the “unprecedented” nature of the case.
“We’re 25 months into the pandemic, approximately,” Etienne said. “His is the only case that we’ve seen like this.”
The defendants, the lawsuit alleges, led a “witch-hunt” against Ngola in order to “shift the blame for their management of COVID-19 to him” and to “score political points, at a time when they were four months away from what became a prematurely called political election.”
The allegations against the province, RCMP and Facebook have not been proven in court.
How Ngola became a ‘marked man’
Ngola says his life was forever changed after he took a brief trip to Quebec in mid-May 2020 to pick up his young daughter because her mother needed to attend a funeral in Africa.
At the time, COVID-19 rules and regulations in the area were changing almost daily. Ngola said he ensured he would be able to make the trip by checking with the police, along with health authorities in both New Brunswick and Quebec.
When he left the province on or around May 13, it was his understanding that he would not need to self-isolate upon his return because he was an essential worker. He was also aware of other doctors in the region who had made similar trips and didn’t self-isolate.
According to the statement of claim, during the “quick sojourn” to Quebec, Ngola took “reasonable precautions” against COVID-19 exposure.
“He drove to pick up his child in his personal vehicle, slept a few hours at his brother’s place, minimized contacts and exposure, utilizing best practices of social distancing and mask wearing, before returning home to New Brunswick,” it states.
On May 26, Ngola was informed by the province’s public health service that one of his patients had tested positive for COVID-19. He was tested, and found out the following day that he was positive.
He said he immediately went into quarantine and within an hour began getting calls from people asking him why he went to Quebec. He soon discovered that his positive status had been leaked on social media.
Later that day, Premier Blaine Higgs told reporters at a press conference that Public Health had found a new case of COVID-19 in the Campbellton region, and they had linked that case to two other cases.
The premier said a medical professional had traveled to Quebec “for personal reasons” and “was not forthcoming about their reasons for travel upon returning to New Brunswick and they did not self-isolate as a result.”
“This is a health-care worker who saw multiple patients over a two-week period following their return to New Brunswick,” Higgs told the news conference on May 27, 2020, during which he placed tighter restrictions on the region.
“We’re still contact tracing, but we know this zone is currently at a higher risk due to the actions of one irresponsible individual.”’
While the premier did not name Ngola, the lawsuit alleges he provided enough information for the doctor to be identified.
“He knew or ought to have known that Dr. Ngola’s identity and apparent health status had already been leaked to the public via Facebook/social media prior to the press conference,” the statement of claim reads.
“Premier Higgs’ conduct gave legitimacy to a toxic environment that was instrumental in the incitation of public hate against Dr. Ngola, a racialized immigrant, who became, as a result, a marked man, threatened with banishment and lynching.”
Global News requested comment from the premier’s office. In response, provincial spokesperson Geoffrey Downey said: “We don’t comment on cases or potential cases before the courts.”
The lawsuit accused Facebook — recently rebranded as Meta — of wilful promotion of hatred, due to its reluctance to remove malicious and misleading content from its platform.
“Throughout this ordeal, Facebook exacerbated the mistreatment of Dr. Ngola due to its reluctance to adequately monitor, stop, remove malicious and misleading content from the platform, in direct violation of its community standards,” the statement of claim says.
Referencing the Facebook congressional hearing in October 2021, the statement of claim said Facebook has done little to remove harmful content from its platform “to avoid a possible decline in its revenue or users’ engagements,” since this type of content generates more engagement on the website.
“Facebook put profit before the safety of targeted people and failed to use the resources available to it to take reasonable steps to prevent the posts from going viral.”
Ngola’s legal team is seeking three per cent of Facebook’s net worldwide profit “as punitive damages are required to catch the attention of the social media industry.”
Premier ‘lit the match’: lawyer
The statement of claim said the premier and the province took no precautions or steps to mitigate damages to Ngola, who is of Congolese descent.
People had already begun talking about Ngola online, and the premier “lit the match” to ignite what would soon become a “forest fire,” said Etienne.
“I don’t know what his story is, and I don’t know what his excuse is, but what I do know is that the conduct was inexcusable – not only the initial conduct, but the propagation of the conduct over days, over weeks, over months, over years,” the lawyer said.
The lawsuit alleges the doctor was promptly doxxed, stalked, and mobbed by death threats and racist insults. According to the statement of claim, he received lynching threats, was called a refugee and told to go back to Africa.
“The language and social actions were reminiscent of a very dark past in ‘Jim Crow’ North America, which included at the time regions of Canada that were segregated,” according to the statement of claim.
During his interview, Ngola said his phone number and pictures of his home were circulated online. He said someone mentioned bringing back the death penalty in regards to his case, causing him to fear for his safety and the safety of his young daughter – and he was powerless to stop the narratives about him from spiraling out of control.
Ngola said he’s still astonished by how quickly the community he loved turned against him.
“I had one of the biggest clinics in Campbellton. I was bringing medicine to my population,” Ngola said.
“Suddenly, everything is different. The good doctor stopped being the good doctor and (became) a criminal.”
The statement of claim says the harassment caused Ngola to seek RCMP protection. He was promised increased patrols around his home, but his claim states that didn’t help.
On “repeated occasions” the public made false tips to the police accusing Ngola of breaching his quarantine.
“False sightings of Dr. Ngola, essentially of other black/racialized residents, mistakenly observed to be Dr. Ngola, would result in calls to the RCMP, and the RCMP re-attending Dr. Ngola’s home to verify whether he was quarantining,” it said.
“There was even a false accusation of Dr. Ngola attempting to move out of the province while in quarantine.”
The fact that police had to go to Ngola’s home several times showed they were not actually monitoring and protecting the home as they said they would, states the statement of claim.
Later on, Ngola, who had been planning to stay in New Brunswick “well into the year 2020,” was informed by a security consultant that he could no longer remain in the province and live in safety. So the doctor moved to Quebec shortly thereafter, leaving behind a province that has long struggled to attract and retain health-care workers.
Allegations of collusion and coverup
The lawsuit alleges the province and the RCMP knew early on that Ngola had done nothing wrong, but worked together anyway to “cover up” Ngola’s “clear innocence.”
The statement of claim said the chief medical officer of the Restigouche Public Health Service informed the RCMP and the province as early as May 26, 2020 — the day before the news conference — that Ngola was co-operating fully and was in compliance with the law.
When Premier Higgs first announced there would be a criminal investigation, “no such inquiry was in fact underway,” according to the statement of claim.
“At the time, there was no complaint that would have triggered an investigation” and the province later sought out a person to act as the complainant.
The statement of claim says the RCMP also created a 21-person task force to investigate Ngola. These actions interfered with the mandate of Public Health, which is in charge of performing contact tracing and investigating all matters related to COVID-19.
“Instead of letting Public Health do its job, the Premier, his Office, the Department of Justice and Public Safety officials and the RCMP circumvented the provincial legislative system and the provincial health authorities,” reads the claim.
“The RCMP, after turning every proverbial rock and stone, would itself come to the institutional conclusion that no crime had been committed by Dr. Ngola, a conclusion that was clearly not satisfactory to its provincial partners and co-defendants.”
In August of 2020, Ngola was charged with failing to self-isolate under the provincial Emergency Measures Act — a charge that was quietly withdrawn in June of 2021.
A devastating impact
While the doctor works to put the situation behind him, the lawsuit claims it ruined “Dr. Ngola’s reputation, personal security and well-being.”
Therefore, its says, the defendants are liable for misfeasance in public office, negligence, defamation, malicious prosecution and negligent investigation.
Ngola is calling for a public apology from the RCMP and the government of New Brunswick — something Higgs has so far refused to do. Asked if he would accept an apology, the doctor said, “Of course.”
However, Ngola said he also wants to be sure something like this “cannot happen again.” The lawsuit calls for the province and the RCMP to undergo a restorative justice process and be subject to an independent investigation.
“Dr. Ngola’s experience was a consequence of institutional anti-Black systemic racism,” the statement of claim says, adding anti-Black racism is “deeply entrenched” in Canadian organizations and institutions.
“What happened to Dr. Ngola affected the Black community in New Brunswick, the rest of Canada and the world,” said the statement of claim.
“Anti-Black racism is real. Therefore, restorative justice processes restore, repair, and heal those relationships through meaningful and democratic input from all parties involved.”
The defendants have 20 days to respond to the claim.
In the meantime, Ngola is moving forward with his life, focusing on his practice in Quebec, and on his daughter — a “small lady” who “saved my life,” he said.
Despite everything that’s happened, Ngola said his love for medicine is as strong as ever.
He intends to keep working for as long as he’s able to – whether it’s practicing as a doctor, or teaching the next generation of health-care workers.
“My life goes together with medicine,” he said.
– with files from Ross Lord