CBC Radio's The House: Mar. 14, 2020

The CBC’s Rob Russo and Rosemary Barton discuss the rapidly changing events of the week that was — and what comes next. Employment Minister and cabinet COVID-19 committee member Carla Qualtrough discusses the federal response to the pandemic, and politicians share their thoughts on how the virus is affecting Parliament. Plus, a historian draws parallels to pandemics past and financial turmoil in Newfoundland and Labrador.

Here's more from this week's episode of The House

Prime Minister Justin Trudeau holds a news conference at his home in Ottawa on Friday, the day after his wife, Sophie Grégoire Trudeau, announced she received a positive COVID-19 test result. The pair will remain in isolation for a planned period of 14 days. (Fred Chartrand/The Canadian Press)

An 'exceptional' state of affairs

The cancellation of public and political gatherings, warnings against international travel, an emergency interest rate cut and high-profile members of the public reporting positive COVID-19 test results were just some of the events that happened this week as the coronavirus pandemic intensified.

"It's exceptional, at a minimum, that all of these things are happening not just in Canada, but globally," said Rob Russo, managing editor of CBC's Parliamentary Bureau.

The CBC's Rosemary Barton has questions about how the economy can be sustained in the midst of widespread shutdowns.

"If we are trying to stimulate the economy and we are also trying to limit our behaviour and our social interactions, how are we stimulating the economy?" Barton told CBC Radio's The House. "That's what I will be interested to hear more [about] from the government next week."

The CBC's Rob Russo and Rosemary Barton characterize an extraordinary week for Canada — the likes of which they have not seen in their careers. 12:14

Responding to the response

"I'm very proud of how we have chosen very deliberately to follow the lead of our public health experts," says Carla Qualtrough, minister of Employment, Workforce Development and Disability Inclusion, of the federal government's coronavirus response.

Qualtrough sits on the federal government's cabinet COVID-19 committee and insists that the patchwork advice Canadians are hearing from their provincial and territorial health authorities is by design.

Carla Qualtrough, Minister of Employment, Workforce Development and Disability Inclusion, says no Canadians should have to risk spreading the coronavirus or falling ill because they feel pressure to go to work. (Sean Kilpatrick/The Canadian Press)

"It was consciously decided that the provinces would make their own call on this because they know their jurisdiction the best," Qualtrough told The House.

"Our public health agency has absolutely been leading with expertise, with caution and with informed advice and decision-making that we are taking."

The minister added that while the details remain a work in progress, measures like temporary benefits for the self-employed and extended tax-filing deadlines are other options Canadians could see deployed in the coming weeks.

Minister Qualtrough defends the federal government's response to the COVID-19 crisis, and says other new measures to help Canadians could be on the way. 10:42

Hitting pause on Parliament

The day before MPs agreed to shut down the House of Commons for five weeks, host Chris Hall went to Parliament Hill to check in with elected officials.

As Canada adopts increasingly strict public health measures, how do politicians feel about flying back to their constituencies, or continuing their jobs as MPs?

Prime Minister Justin Trudeau rises during question period in the House of Commons in Ottawa in 2019. The House of Commons is now grinding to a halt over concerns about COVID-19. (Adrian Wyld /The Canadian Press)

"I'm required by my job to be on airplanes a big chunk of the time. I don't like it, I don't want to do it — but it's the job," said Green Party MP Elizabeth May. "I don't want to find out later that members of Parliament were vectors for the distribution of COVID-19. That's not going to be a good story."

The House also spoke to members of the Board of Internal Economy and other MPs who played a role in making the tough decision to wind down Parliamentary business this week.

The House of Commons is suspended until April 20 — here's what MPs and other politicians had to say before West Block closed its doors. 6:19

Parallels to pandemics past

The cancelled sporting events, closed schools and shuttered theatres inspired by the COVID-19 crisis might look like entirely new things, but they aren't — they also happened during the 1918 Spanish flu pandemic.

Historian Mark Humphries points out that, a century ago, Canada had no federal health department to coordinate a response plan.

"The fact that we do have a federal minister who is responsible for helping coordinate those responses, to help share resources, to facilitate communication, that's a really key thing," said Humphries, who wrote the 2012 book The Last Plague: Spanish Influenza and the Politics of Public Health in Canada.

"Life was put on hold briefly ... but [it does] start up again," he told host Chris Hall. "Society is a very resilient thing and this is something that is a major challenge that history tells us we'll move past."

There are some surprising comparisons between the 1918 Spanish flu pandemic and the COVID-19 outbreak — and one key difference. 7:59

A plea for help from Newfoundland and Labrador

Perhaps no province in Canada needs fiscal stabilization more than Newfoundland and Labrador. Its finances are in turmoil and the Muskrat Falls hydroelectric project has gone about $6 billion over budget and is two years behind schedule.

Adding tumbling oil prices and the economic uncertainty caused by COVID-19 into the mix leaves the province facing a perfect storm of financial consequences.

The CBC's Chris O'Neill-Yates brings a special report to The House.

The House hears from the CBC’s Chris O'Neill-Yates from St. John's about economic concerns on Canada's east coast. 4:27