In grim first for Quebec, 19-year-old Montrealer dies of COVID-19

The father of Don Béni Kabangu Nsapu, the first Quebecer under 20 to die of COVID-19, struggles over the phone to make sense of his son's death.

Alain Lukinda Nsapu says his son was a tall 19-year-old with no underlying health conditions. He was weeks away from entering Quebec's CEGEP college program when he fell ill.

"It's a bad shock for me," said Lukinda Nsapu. "We've never heard of a young person dying from it here and for my son to be the first, it's very painful. It hurts my heart."

He said the family, who lives just north of Montreal, brought Kabangu Nsapu to the hospital with a bad fever over a month ago. Doctors told them it was the coronavirus and to return home and isolate for at least 14 days.

"We added a week to that and it's at the end of the third week that things got worse," Lukinda Nsapu said. "After that, I don't know [what went wrong], you have to ask the hospital."

Radio-Canada contacted the Pierre-Le Gardeur hospital in Terrebonne, which refused to give any information about Kabangu Nsapu. The Health Ministry said that while it understands the media interest in the case, it is illegal to publicly discuss an individual's medical files.

Lukinda Nsapu said his son spent nine days in hospital and died Aug. 16. It's still unclear to him why his son didn't survive: He was rarely sick and was known among his siblings for being in good shape. His father doesn't know where his son caught the virus.

Star athlete proud of Congolese roots

A post on the Facebook page for the Réseau du sport étudiant du Québec from last year states Kabangu Nsapu won the distinction of "male high school student-athlete who demonstrated academic and athletic perseverance."

In 2016, when Kabangu Nsapu was 16, he was featured on the city of Montreal's website, proudly displaying a traditional Congolese shirt.

Ville de Montréal
Ville de Montréal

"I am from Congo-Kinshasa," he says in the text, adding he and his family arrived in Quebec the year before.

"My aunt [gave me this clothing] as a souvenir so as not to forget the culture of the country. This is why this costume is important to me, because it reminds me of my cultural identity and the clothing of my country."

The family are holding a visitation Friday. A friend of the family created an online fundraiser to help pay for Kabangu Nsapu's funeral.

Federal Health Minister Patty Hajdu shared her condolences with the family in a news conference Friday.

"The loss of a child is a tragedy that — it's hard to find words for how much suffering that family must be going through right now. My heart is with them. As a parent of young people, I can tell you this is one of the most tragic events a family has to go through."

Quebec Premier François Legault also expressed his condolences and said the death was worrisome.

"It is the first time since the beginning of the pandemic that someone under 20 has died of COVID-19 [in Quebec]," he told reporters at a stop in Bécancour, east of Montreal. "Obviously, we'll have an autopsy performed, but it's troubling."

Reminder of how unpredictable and deadly virus is

Around the world, deaths among younger people have been rare, but not unheard of, and serve as reminders that the virus remains unpredictable and potentially deadly to anyone.

"What this death shows us is that the disease can strike anyone, at any age," said Dr. Cécile Tremblay, a microbiologist and infectious disease specialist with the Université de Montréal hospital network.

Although deaths are extremely rare at that age, she said, the virus is nonetheless being carried by young people, who are more likely to end up at parties and gatherings.

The death comes as people under 30 account for an increasing number of confirmed cases in Quebec and in Canada.

In the past three months, the proportion of people under 30 confirmed to have been infected has increased, going from 13.6 per cent of the total number of Quebecers infected in mid-May to 22.9 per cent today, according to data from the INSPQ, Quebec's public health research institute.

Across Canada, over the same period, the proportion of cases among people under 30 went from 16.9 per cent to 23.8 per cent.

"What we see is that in the second wave or the wave of the pandemic across the planet, the same scenario is happening, it's really younger people who are infected," Tremblay said.