The military is ready to deploy to remote Indigenous and northern communities if it is needed to combat outbreaks of the novel coronavirus, Canada’s top general says.
General Jonathan Vance told The Globe and Mail he is also planning to put reservists on the payroll full time so they will be available to conduct humanitarian activities in communities that need help. He said a “wartime effort” is an accurate way to describe the intensity and stakes that are at play for the military during the COVID-19 pandemic.
One of the top priorities of the military right now is to be able to respond quickly to remote communities that are infected with COVID-19, and to help deal with natural disasters such as forest fires or floods if the pandemic has reduced the ranks of emergency workers, he said.
“The main planning effort right now … is to be able to deploy a large task force to a community that is difficult to access. That would meet the requirements of an Indigenous community or any of our isolated northern communities,” he said.
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Gen. Vance, who is Chief of the Defence Staff, said the military plans include air-medical evacuations to get people to hospital, and provision of supplies, nursing stations and small field hospitals. The military can also provide self-isolation quarters for individuals who have tested positive for the virus and live in tight quarters where they could expose others.
“I deem that as an absolute necessity to prepare for,” he said. “If we need to provide for full-service, multi-spectrum support in a fly-in community that is at long range from any of our bases, and if we can do that effectively, then most everything else is going to be an easy day.”
He said the military has enough medical protective gear and ventilators to make sure it can save lives if called to a remote community.
The general said he also issued an order to hire reservists full-time to serve in any task needed.
“At the right moment, they will be organized by task forces that are tailored to do the job, whatever that may be in whatever part of the country that may be,” he said.
The reservists would be on-call and in isolation “so that they are immediately available and it shortens our response time.”
The reservists should be ready to deploy within a week or so to be “a helpful hand in a community should they should run out of capacity in terms of humanitarian acts that are perhaps being done by volunteers now if volunteers get exhausted or sick.”
Steps are being taken to ensure troops don’t accidentally bring the virus to remote communities they may deploy to, Gen. Vance said. In an attempt to keep personnel healthy, he said only 15 per cent of staff are working at their usual office or post, while everyone else is working from home.
Fewer than 20 personnel have tested positive for the virus, Gen. Vance said, noting there is no sign of community spread among the Canadian Armed Forces at this point. However, he said he is preparing for up to 25 per cent of personnel to potentially be unavailable in a worst-case scenario.
“I think the number of cases will rise. It’s just the nature of the spread but with the kind of discipline and dedication to keeping ourselves ready, I think it’ll stay reasonably low” he said. “We don’t want to just flatten the curve, we want to squash it out altogether.”
Gen. Vance said he is paying close attention to the virus’s spread in the U.S., as it will be a concern to Canada if it gets out of control south of the border. He said he is also monitoring the situation in Europe, the Middle East and Africa to ensure Canadian troops stationed abroad are not exposed to COVID-19.
The pandemic has further complicated the future of Canadian operations in the Middle East. Most Canadian troops had already been temporarily pulled out of Iraq before the COVID-19 outbreak. They withdrew earlier this year after a U.S. drone strike in Iraq killed a senior Iranian military commander, creating instability in the country.
Aside from a small team of Special Forces in Northern Iraq and a skeletal staff in Baghdad, most Canadian troops are now stationed in Kuwait or back in Canada. Gen. Vance said troops fully intend on redeploying to Iraq, but a number of factors, from the COVID-19 outbreak to the political situation in the country, would have to stabilize before they can do so.
The Navy is also taking steps to ensure Canadian ships avoid a possible coronavirus infection, as a U.S. warship currently deals with a COVID-19 outbreak. Gen. Vance said the Navy acted early, isolating sailors for 14 days and disinfecting any supplies that come on board to ensure the ships are virus free.
As warmer weather and the Easter weekend approaches, Gen. Vance echoed Prime Minister Justin Trudeau’s plea to Canadians to practice physical distancing.
“I would rather that everybody follows that and prevents the use of the military than not follow it and cause the military to be used. Because when the military comes in, it’s a last ditch effort and it’s really bad.”
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