Politics·Exclusive

Prepare for multiple waves of COVID-19 over 12 months: military chief to troops

The Canadian military is preparing for multiple waves of the COVID-19 pandemic in an operation that could last 12 months or more. That's according to a planning directive issued Thursday by the chief of the defence staff.

Gen. Jonathan Vance says the CAF is planning for the 'worst-case scenario'

In an interview with CBC News, Gen. Jonathan Vance said the directive is planning for the 'worst-case scenario.' (CBC)

The Canadian military is preparing to respond to multiple waves of the COVID-19 pandemic which could stretch out over a year or more, the country's top military commander said in his latest planning directive.

Gen. Jonathan Vance, chief of the defence staff, warned in a memo issued Thursday that requests for assistance can be expected "from all echelons of government and the private sector and they will likely come to the Department [of National Defence] through multiple points of entry."

The directive notes the federal government has not yet directed the military to move into response mode, but if or when it does, a single government panel — likely a deputy-minister level inter-departmental task force — will "triage requests and co-ordinate federal responses."

It also warns that members of the military will contract the novel coronavirus, "potentially threatening the integrity" of some units.

At the moment, there are only three confirmed cases of COVID-19 among military members, according to Vance.

The notion that the virus caseload could recede and then return is a feature of federal government planning.

The Public Health Agency of Canada has put out a notice looking for people to staff its Centre for Emergency Preparedness and Response during the crisis and the secondment is expected to last between 12 and 24 months.

'Worst-case scenario'

Vance told CBC News today the directive is "generally speaking worst-case scenario" planning and can be regarded as a set of assumptions at the moment.

"COVID might last two months or four months, but in a strategic planning guidance I would ask what happens if it lasts 12 months," Vance said.

"If ... it doesn't come to pass — fine. If we don't ask the questions ahead of time, we can be surprised. What we try to do with this sort of thing is avoid surprises and have the forces necessary to do the job."

A truly worst-case scenario would involve public disturbances, he added.

"We are not considering that right now. We don't need to," Vance said. "What I don't want is, as soon as you mention military during a crisis people think troops with guns and weapons. People need to see the response as more akin to a humanitarian response."

In Italy, the military has been employed in the pandemic response in a variety of ways, including through bolstering the capacity of medical equipment manufacturers and transporting the bodies of those who've succumbed to COVID-19.

The Canadian military, unlike those in some other nations, has high-readiness units available. Vance said they are already set to reach out into communities to help when called.

Planners are also looking in more detail at possible missions — such as aiding remote communities in the Arctic where an outbreak could cripple critical infrastructure.

A 'calming influence'

Vance said he hopes that knowing "the military is looking at this and will be there in time of need" will have a "calming influence" on the public

"I'm looking to reassure people," he said.

Defence analyst Dave Perry said this kind of military planning exercise is enormously challenging and complicated in normal times, let alone when most of the federal civil service has been sent home.

Canadian forces soldiers lay down sandbags to reinforce the highway in Saint-Andre-d'Argenteuil, Que., west of Montreal in 2017. (Canadian Press)

"The idea that they're planning to be at this for a year is absolutely bang on," said Perry, a vice-president at the Canadian Global Affairs Institute.

"Not only are they trying to figure out how to respond during an unprecedented crisis, but they're doing it while the federal government as a whole is trying to operate a 21st century economy with its workforce operating from their couch and the kitchen."

Could Canada pull back from missions abroad?

In light of the extended pandemic timeframe, and in the face of a possible onslaught of requests from different levels of government and the private sector, Perry said he wonders how long it will take before federal officials and leaders consider scaling back some of Canada's overseas commitments.

There are three ongoing major international deployments — in Latvia, Ukraine and Iraq — and a host of smaller ones. 

"Keeping two thousand people — which is the last official number I heard of folks deployed in several different areas — is probably going to be taxing a system that's going to have have significant requests for assistance put on to it," said Perry.

 

About the Author

Murray Brewster

Defence and security

Murray Brewster is senior defence writer for CBC News, based in Ottawa. He has covered the Canadian military and foreign policy from Parliament Hill for over a decade. Among other assignments, he spent a total of 15 months on the ground covering the Afghan war for The Canadian Press. Prior to that, he covered defence issues and politics for CP in Nova Scotia for 11 years and was bureau chief for Standard Broadcast News in Ottawa.

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