MPs aren’t immune from virus fears

Life on Parliament Hill often resembles life on a cruise ship — hundreds of people from all corners, thrown together and forced to breathe the same air as they go through the rounds of scheduled activities.

On Monday, the same day that Canada officially discouraged cruise travelling, the good ship House of Commons was similarly preoccupied with how the COVID-19 pandemic has now spread and thrown everything off course in federal politics.

The economy, a looming federal budget and first ministers’ conference later this week are all susceptible to the uncertain waves of the spreading virus, which threatens to spur two types of panic: fear of catching COVID-19 and fear of its economic fallout. Political life is far from immune.

Justin Trudeau’s government is not under any quarantine, but it does give the sense that it’s huddled in close quarters right now, watching the bad news escalate and hoping that things don’t get worse.

Even as the daily question period was heating up in the Commons on Monday, the news emerged of Canada’s first death from the virus, a resident of a care home in British Columbia.

It’s been quite the year for Trudeau and his team — a rolling set of crises that are convenient and coincidentally alphabetical: air crash, blockades and coronavirus, now known as COVID-19.

Several weeks ago, as it seemed that Ottawa’s biggest problems were the Indigenous blockades paralyzing rail traffic across the country, a couple of senior advisers in the PMO warned that they were hearing the worst wasn’t over for coronavirus.

Smart people inside government were reportedly braced for the possibility, which Deputy Prime Minister Chrystia Freeland put into words on Monday in the Commons.

“We are planning for worst-case scenarios, as is prudent and correct for our government to do,” Freeland said.

MPs were back in their ridings last week, when COVID-19 was in the midst of developing into the large-scale crisis it now is around the globe — not to mention back on the ground, where constituents were telling them of mounting concern for our virus preparedness.

When the politicians were last in Ottawa, the virus looked concerning, but containable. On Monday, the mood was noticeably different.

The epidemic is now hitting closer to home and across party lines, with one Liberal MP, Anthony Housefather from Montreal, in self-isolation after attending a conference March 1 in the U.S., where two people (including one from Toronto) subsequently tested positive for the virus.

Former Conservative cabinet minister John Baird, who a few weeks ago was mulling a run for the party leadership, was also on the same panel as Housefather at the American Israel Public Affairs Committee in Washington.

Housefather told me on Monday he’s feeling “perfectly well” and staying home out of an “abundance of caution.”

Two Conservative MPs were also reportedly at another conference in the U.S. last week where the virus was also present, but it wasn’t immediately clear whether the two — Kerry Diotte and Michael Cooper — would be following Housefather’s example.

Politics is a tactile business. It revolves around meetings, travel and close contact — exactly the conditions that spread the virus. Still, signs were mixed on Monday whether this virus that is consuming the government will be changing the day-to-day lives of Parliament’s denizens — at least for now.

Global Affairs Minister Francois-Philippe Champagne is an enthusiastic handshaker wherever he goes on the Hill.

“I’m trying,” he said on Monday when I asked if he was reining in his enthusiasm out of concern for the virus.

“I’m still shaking hands,” Immigration Minister Marco Mendicino boasted outside the Commons, grabbing the hand of NDP Leader Jagmeet Singh to illustrate his point. Singh said he was still shaking hands on the job, too.

I asked Conservative Leader Andrew Scheer’s office whether the outbreak or fear of it had modified his on-the-job activities. His spokesperson, Simon Jeffries, replied, “Mr. Scheer’s mom was a nurse and taught him the importance of hygiene. At this time with coronavirus concerns, Mr. Scheer is being extra mindful.”

Trudeau’s office wasn’t saying much more about how the virus might be limiting his activities.

“The prime minister follows public health best practices to prevent the spread of infections, as he often meets with people because of the nature of his function,” communications director Cameron Ahmad would only say.

But as COVID-19 is increasingly changing the lives of Canadians, it’s an open question how long the ship of state can operate as usual in the days ahead — if one can call anything in this year so far anything like usual.

Susan Delacourt is a columnist with Torstar Syndication Services.

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