It’s hard to forget how up to 1,700 military medics and ordinary soldiers had to save coronavirus-infested long-term care homes last spring in Ontario and Quebec in a widely acknowledged public health policy failure.
In terms of scale, the effort to manage the national vaccine distribution center is – for the time being – considerably smaller, but no less critical and significant.
It involves 28 of the Army’s top planners and at least two generals, including Fortin, whose day-to-day job is to maintain the Army’s Joint Operations Command as Chief of Staff. The Ottawa-based headquarters direct all military movements at home and abroad.
Defense Minister Harjit Sajjan insisted on Friday that the conduct of the vaccination campaign would not be a distraction in a world, and a year, where crises erupt with unexpected and capricious ferocity.
“We’ve never looked away from what’s going on in the world,” he told CBC News after Fortin’s appointment as vice president, logistics and operations at the Health Agency Public of Canada (PHAC).
According to a defense analyst, in an army the size of Canada, the detachment to PHAC will be felt, but it is in the national interest and in the interest of the military to participate.
“I think the military wants to see this whole pandemic in the rearview mirror,” as much as the rest of Canadians, said Dave Perry, vice-president of the Canadian Institute of Global Affairs. “In a sense, that would potentially be reducing bandwidth to do other things in the short term, but if their help means we get this behind us faster, it would also free them up to take on additional tasks that the government might ask them to do.” . make. ”
The military’s participation “in one of the most important logistics operations in which Canada has been engaged in some time” should come as no surprise because it “has real critical implications, literally on life. or death for Canadians across the country, ”Perry told me.
The military, however, is supposed to be the institution of last resort, the place the federal government goes when it has no other options.
Coordinating the tangled logistics to get tens of millions of doses of coronavirus vaccine from seven different drugmakers – on different approval schedules, from different countries – and getting them to healthy provinces is clearly a task. military level.
A cargo plane like a “C-17 or a C-130J Hercules could do this task,” said Dan Ross, a retired brigadier-general who headed the procurement arm of the Department of Defense during the war in Afghanistan.
It could also facilitate “delivery to remote areas of the country, remote settlements, remote places that do not have direct commercial access, especially in winter,” he said.
Ross knows all about dealing with a crisis with life and death implications, as a senior official tasked with purchasing and moving equipment in an emergency in Kandahar and at the height of major fighting.
It’s a unique skill nested in the military.
“Most government departments are not trained or equipped to take on this type of role,” Ross said. “They don’t do command and control communications. These are normally policy workshops that provide services to Canadians. “
And it’s an important observation in the minds of public health policy professionals who wonder why other parts of the federal government – especially those charged with pandemic planning – haven’t embraced the mentality. planning and organization of the military.
“I don’t know if this has happened before,” said Mario Possamai, a health and safety expert who served on the commission that looked at how Ontario handled the SARS crisis in 2002. .
More than a decade before COVID-19, he said, the biggest vaccination program was for the H1N1 virus “and the military was not involved.”
The fact that the military is so heavily involved, and at such a late date, is, in Possamai’s opinion, an “indictment” of federal and provincial health officials who have had at least two decades to do so. prepare for a pandemic.
“And we really have to ask public health officials: you spent a lot of time, a lot of money, a lot of resources planning for this, planning for the pandemic and that’s the best you can do?” ” He asked.
The Liberal government has faced similar and specific criticism for its handling of the pandemic early warning system and its inability to issue warnings about the impending COVID-19 disaster.
“PHAC has shown that they just haven’t learned about H1N1, SARS, MERS, Ebola,” Possamai said.
The United States appointed a senior military logistics official to lead its vaccine deployment campaign, called Operation Warp Speed, in May, Possamai said, adding that there should be a royal commission after the pandemic passes. .
Perry agrees and said the country “shouldn’t be in a position where we need the military” to carry out some of the tasks given to it.
“I don’t think that changes the fact – at least from my perspective – that the military getting involved in this file now would be a very good thing for all Canadians waiting for a needle,” Perry said. .
It is not yet clear to what extent the Canadian Armed Forces will be more involved, as Public Health is still in the process of developing its plan.
Sajjan left the door open on Friday for further assistance, including the possibility of troops delivering vaccines directly to the public in parts of Canada.
“I’m not going to leave anything out that we won’t do – because there is obviously a possibility,” he said. “But what we want to do is use the existing systems that we have. ”
The minister said he wanted Canadians to have “absolute confidence that the CAF will be where all the gaps need to be closed.”