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Ken Hansen is an independent defence and security analyst and owner of Hansen Maritime Horizons. Retired from the Royal Canadian Navy in 2009 in the rank of commander, he is also a contributor to the security affairs committee for the Royal United Services Institute of Nova Scotia.

As the coronavirus situation worsens daily, medical experts have become decidedly less confident in their assessments about the new pandemic. Dr. Michael Gardam, an infectious-diseases specialist and a veteran of the SARS outbreak in Toronto, said in an interview on CBC Radio that the virus is now fully established in our population and that it will spread steadily; he expects the number of infected to double approximately every week. How far it will go is unknown, but estimates now suggest that between 40 and 70 per cent of the global population will contract COVID-19.

Dr. Gardam noted that he was especially concerned that the rate of transmission will overwhelm the capacity of the Canadian public-health system. That’s what has occurred in Italy, where the influx of seriously ill patients in overtaxed hospitals has made standard triage practices and intensive-care procedures impossible. In an effort to prevent this overexertion, social distancing – an ancient concept employed as far back as the Black Death in Europe – is now widely being taken up to flatten the curve, or reduce the number of serious cases from crashing into the system all at once.

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But Dr. Gardam also said that large, empty spaces, such as high school gyms, that can be converted into basic medical units to treat those not ill enough to require intensive care might help add capacity, to give the curve a bit more breathing room.

So why aren’t we talking about using Canadian military facilities?

The federal Liberals’ defence policy clearly identifies a core mission for the military to "provide assistance to civil authorities and non-governmental partners in responding to international and domestic disasters or major emergencies.” The key word here is “assistance,” though: The military has no interest in leading or directing civil agencies in domestic scenarios. The norm is to wait until directed and then provide support only, not offering anything that will divert resources away from the more purely military core missions.

And in the early going, Prime Minister Justin Trudeau has appeared to want to keep the military separate from the civilian effort. The Canadian Armed Forces only launched its own preparations in response to the virus’s spread in early March, and only around its military obligations.

But one of the big problems is that military medical capacity that could help with the pandemic has withered away. The Department of National Defence has hospitals across Canada in all of its major bases, though most have been downgraded to secondary treatment facilities, now known as health-service centres. They no longer house overnight patients; imaging and diagnostics, along with surgical procedures, are typically done by provincial hospitals. The military maintains only enough capacity in these centres to generate a deployable medical facility with its field-hospital units, and only when a major expeditionary operation is assigned by the government, normally with six months of warning time.

The Disaster Assistance Response Team is usually how the Canadian Armed Forces provides medical care in an emergency, but it’s limited. With a capacity of just 100 outpatients and 10 in-patients, that team can only serve as a stopgap, and it is usually deployed externally, rather than used in domestic situations.

Canadian Forces personnel stand by to assist Canadians evacuated from China in Trenton, Ont., on Feb. 7, 2020.

EDWARD WANG/Reuters

The military has made one contribution so far – in February, CFB Trenton was used to house Canadian evacuees from China who needed to quarantine for 14 days. The base was an ideal fit: It had on-site transportation facilities with large sheltered spaces for screening, in addition to housing, food services and other administrative supports. Using bases could be productive if that resource is tapped.

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There are other options, not even tied to land. Two new classes of ships now under construction in Halifax and Vancouver will have the ability to mount sea-cargo containers, which can be modified to fit a variety of purposes.

The six DeWolf-class Arctic-patrol vessels have HVAC, water, power and data connections for six such containers, while the two Canadian derivatives of the German Bonn-class sustainment ships are designed to carry 78 cargo containers, of which 23 pre-outfitted containers could be stacked three-high to form a medical facility. These vessels can serve as mobile medical clinics for screening tests, which would be especially invaluable in remote Northern communities, which tend to cluster around coastlines. Indeed, the federal government has already flagged particular concern about the coronavirus’s potential impact on remote Indigenous communities.

Developing flexible and modular tech in naval ships will have useful Canadian applications beyond this moment, too. When planned for flexibility from the outset, these kinds of modular sub-units, which can be moved from site to site, represent a new and flexible response to emergencies that especially challenge the medical capacities of underdeveloped and isolated communities.

In the U.S., the Federal Emergency Management Agency uses containers as portable housing for disaster-relief workers, while in Nova Scotia, Dalhousie University’s MEOPAR project uses modular containers on ships as marine research laboratories as part of its national research-vessel task team.

The question now is whether the Canadian government will insist that the military plan for and obtain this kind of contingency capability. It may not be a typical approach, and this route may only be a contingency plan, but these are atypical times, requiring as many contingency plans as we can get. And these are the kinds of situations where the military is supposed to thrive. ​

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