Politics·Analysis

Military help with vaccine rollout is a blessing and a curse, experts say

Helping with vaccine distribution will be the second significant time Ottawa has turned to the military during the pandemic, leading some to question whether public health officials should have better anticipated what is about to unfold.

Most public service departments 'not trained or equipped,' for this, retired general says

Military personnel arrive at a seniors residence in Laval, Que., on April 20. Some 1,700 military medics and troops had to rescue coronavirus-infested long-term care homes in Ontario and Quebec in a widely acknowledged failure of public health policy. (Ryan Remiorz/Canadian Press)

Inside of the Department of National Defence they are calling it "a whole of nation effort."

And the tasking of Canada's top former NATO commander in Iraq, Maj.-Gen. Dany Fortin, with the job of running the COVID-19 vaccine distribution campaign is inarguably a point of pride for an institution that often radiates a can-do attitude. 

It also, however, represents the second time the federal government has turned to the military in a significant way during the pandemic, leading some to question whether federal and provincial public health agencies should have better anticipated what is about to unfold.

It is hard to forget how up to 1,700 military medics and ordinary troops had to rescue coronavirus-infested long-term care homes last spring in Ontario and Quebec in a widely acknowledged failure of public health policy.

In terms of scale, the effort to run the national vaccine distribution centre is — at the moment — considerably smaller, but no less critical and significant.

It involves 28 of the military's top planners and at least two generals, including Fortin, whose day job is keeping the military's joint operations command humming as chief of staff. The Ottawa-based headquarters directs all military moves at home and overseas.

Defence Minister Harjit Sajjan insisted on Friday that running the vaccine campaign will not be a distraction in a world, and a year, where crises erupt with unexpected and capricious ferocity.  

"We have never taken our eye off what's happening around the world," he told CBC News following Fortin's appointment as vice president, logistics and operations at the Public Health Agency of Canada (PHAC).

One defence analyst says, in a military the size of Canada's, the secondment to PHAC will be felt, but it is in the national interest, and military's own interest, to pitch in.

"I think the military wants to see this whole pandemic in the rear-view mirror," as much as the rest of Canadians, said Dave Perry, vice president at the Canadian Global Affairs Institute. "In one sense, it would be potentially taking bandwidth away to do something else in the short term, but if their assistance means we get this behind us more quickly it also would free them up to take on additional tasks that the government might ask them to do."

The involvement of the military "in one of the most significant logistical operations that Canada has engaged in in quite some time" should not be a surprise because it "has real critical, literally life and death implications for Canadians all across this country," Perry said.

The military, however, is supposed to be the institution of last resort, the place where the federal government goes when it's out of other options.

Canada's top former NATO commander in Iraq, Maj.-Gen. Dany Fortin, seen here at CFB Valcartier in 2014, has been tasked with running the COVID-19 vaccine distribution campaign. (Cpl. Nathan Moulton/Canadian Forces Combat Camera)

Co-ordinating the tangled logistics of getting tens of million of doses of coronavirus vaccine from seven different drugmakers — on different approval schedules, from different countries — and getting them to provinces in good condition is clearly a military-grade task.

A cargo plane like a "C-17 or a C-130J Hercules could do that task," said Dan Ross, a retired brigadier-general who ran the defence department's purchasing branch during the Afghan war.   

It could also facilitate "the delivery to remote parts of the country, remote settlements, remote locations that don't have commercial direct access, particularly in winter," he said. 

Ross knows all about managing a crisis with life-and-death implications, as the senior official in charge of buying and moving equipment on an emergency basis into Kandahar at the height of major combat.

It's a unique skill nested within the military.

"Most public servant departments are not trained or equipped to do that type of role," Ross said. "They don't do command-and-control communications. They are normally policy shops who deliver services to Canadians." 

Military resources like C-17 or C-130J cargo planes could be especially helpful reaching remote parts of the country, one defence analyst noted. (Sgt. Matthew McGregor/DND handout/Canadian Press)

And that is an important observation in the minds of public health policy professionals who question why other parts of the federal government — especially those charged with pandemic planning — have not adopted the planning and organizational mindset of the military.

"I don't know if this has ever happened before," said Mario Possamai, a health and safety expert, who sat on the commission that reviewed Ontario's handling of the SARS crisis in 2002.

More than a decade before COVID-19, he said, the largest immunization program was for the H1N1 virus "and the military was not involved there."

Having the military so heavily involved, and at such a late date, is, in Possamai's view, an "indictment" of federal and provincial health officials who've had two decades or more to get ready for a pandemic.  

"And we really need to ask the public health people: You spent a lot of time, a lot of money, a lot of resources planning for this, planning for the pandemic and this is the best that you can do?" he asked.

Minister of Defence Harjit Sajjan has left the door open to further military help, including the possibility of troops delivering vaccine directly to the public in some parts of Canada. (Adrian Wyld/Canadian Press)

The Liberal government has faced similar, specific criticism for its handling of the pandemic early warning system and its failure to issue warnings about the impending COVID-19 catastrophe.

"PHAC has demonstrated that they just have not learned from H1N1, from SARS, from MERS, from Ebola," said Possamai.

The U.S. appointed a senior military logistics general to run its vaccine rollout campaign, called Operation Warp Speed, in May, said Possamai, adding he believes there should be a Royal Commission after the pandemic has passed.  

Perry agrees and said the country "shouldn't be in a position where we need the military" to carry out some of the tasks that have been asked of it.

"I don't think that changes the fact — that at least from my vantage point — having the military involved in this right now would be a very good thing for every Canadian that's waiting to get a needle," said Perry.

How much more involved the Canadian Armed Forces will get remains unclear because public health is still developing its plan.

Sajjan left the door open Friday to further assistance, including the possibility of troops delivering vaccine directly to the public in some parts of Canada.

"I'm not going to leave anything outside that we won't do — because there is obviously a possibility of that," he said. "But what we want to do is use the existing systems that we have."

The minister said he wants Canadians to have "absolute confidence that the CAF will be there where any gap that needs to be filled."

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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