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A member of the Canadian Armed Forces is shown at Residence Villa Val des Arbres a long-term care home in Laval, Que., Sunday, April 19, 2020, as COVID-19 cases rise in Canada and around the world. Today’s pandemic has forced many of us into unfamiliar territory, and Canadians are finding ways of coping with previously inconceivable situations.

Graham Hughes/The Canadian Press

Lieutenant-General (Ret’d) Roméo Dallaire and Dr. Shelly Whitman are the founder and executive director, respectively, of the Roméo Dallaire Child Soldiers Initiative.

Today’s pandemic has forced many of us into unfamiliar territory, and Canadians are finding ways of coping with previously inconceivable situations: isolation from loved ones, shortages of everyday supplies, fear of imminent danger, and uncertainty about the future, all while obeying tough orders and following strict protocols.

During times of armed conflict, vulnerable populations face these measures on a regular basis.

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These are also the conditions under which many active military personnel live as a matter of course. Members of the Canadian Armed Forces deploy all around the globe and fulfill innumerable roles that they may or may not be prepared to undertake. This includes activities that range from fighting enemy combatants overseas, to protecting vulnerable populations to, most recently, caring for long-term care residents in our own communities.

Likewise, police and peacekeeping personnel are often faced with ethical scenarios for which they are mentally underprepared, including impossible choices, avoidable suffering, or extreme injustice. And there is no more distressing example of this than encountering children in situations of violence. Children in armed-conflict zones are often faced with very few options to survive; they may have been recruited and used as soldiers, endured sexual violence, or experienced extreme poverty.

Be it on a battlefield or in a home, engaging with any young victim of abuse, neglect, or brutality has the potential to create serious “moral injury." Moral injury can occur in a person when they witness or participate in an action that goes against their conscience.

The COVID-19 pandemic threatens to inflict moral injury on many of us who must bear witness to or engage in actions which we would have thought inconceivable only a month ago. Take, for example, the families unable to visit their dying loved ones in hospitals; ICU doctors caring for infected patients who cannot go home at night; or teachers who cannot help monitor or console the children who are now forced to endure abusive parents.

As Canadian troops, health care workers, first responders, teachers, social workers and volunteers are being called upon to step up and assist the most at-risk and vulnerable – often with little to no preparation or training for this scenario – we anticipate more incidences of moral injury to come.

The Roméo Dallaire Child Soldiers Initiative seeks to help mitigate moral injuries through our practical application of a “children’s rights up front” approach. We aim to change the behaviour of individuals by increasing the knowledge, skills, and attitudes of those who can directly influence a child’s environment. This includes the unique approach to how we work to train and build the capacity of police and the military, and influence policy that protects children as much as it protects personnel.

It is our belief that this approach can also be applied to help those who are suffering from moral injuries during the COVID-19 pandemic here at home. Lessons learned from veterans who have suffered moral injuries in the field can inform those who will find themselves in distress over the coming days. Communities that have endured prolonged armed conflict, including children who have survived and now thrive here in Canada, have a great deal to teach us about resilience and perspective.

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Prevention is critical for so many aspects of suffering, and while we could not prevent the pandemic, we can prevent additional suffering with thoughtful foresight, preparation, and practical steps. Now is a time for us to be innovative and learn from those who understand hardship and survival in different ways.

Security forces tasked with enforcing stay-at-home guidelines: Prepare for unique approaches to understanding the reasons children might want to break isolation rules and use this for moments to build dialogue.

Policy makers: Keep children’s rights up front when creating strategies to prevent the pandemic from further endangering our communities.

Social workers and educators: Consider the long-term effects on children of both COVID-19 and our response to it (e.g. potential for dangers of exposure; increased screen time; emotional turmoil created by unknown stressors; or the economic impact on families to meet basic needs).

Our responses to the COVID-19 pandemic must put the well-being of children front and centre, with an understanding of the unique needs of children in a crisis.

Minimizing suffering for both children and front-line workers will decrease the potential for moral injury for all of us during these troubling times.

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