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, the chief of the defence staff, warned in a memo on 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 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.
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 we don’t have to do and 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.
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.