OTTAWA — Canadian troops in Iraq are on high alert as the novel coronavirus spreads inside the country.
Chief of the defence staff Gen. Jonathan Vance said troops have been ordered to protect themselves, including through proper hygiene and keeping their distance from Iraqi forces who may be infected with the virus, which can cause a respiratory illness known as COVID-19.
"Where we detect that there may be people ill, and we have in a couple of spots, not that we're necessarily going to be working with them, but we stay clear," Vance said on the sidelines of a major defence conference in Ottawa.
"Chances are if someone is sick, they're not going to be operating, they're not going to be doing the job. Therefore they wouldn't be subject to our close mentoring. But nonetheless, we've started to notice its spread in Iraq."
While Vance did not get into specifics, two people are believed to have died from the disease in Iraq — one in Baghdad and the other in the northern Kurdistan region where Canadian special forces have been operating for several years.
The reports follow concerns about a major outbreak in neighbouring Iran that has raised concerns about it spreading to other parts of the Middle East.
Canada has around 500 military members in Iraq participating in the international effort to defeat the Islamic State of Iraq and the Levant, or ISIL. Most of them are involved in training local Iraqi forces.
Vance said he is worried about the virus spreading in countries like Iraq, where inadequate health-care systems can make it difficult to detect and treat.
At the same time, Vance said the Canadian Armed Forces is stepping up its planning for how to respond to a potential pandemic here in Canada, including how to handle a situation where up to a quarter of all military members are sick and unable to work.
More than 400 Canadians and their families were quarantined at Canadian Forces Base Trenton in southern Ontario after being evacuated from the Chinese city of Wuhan, where COVID-19 was first reported to the World Health Organization in December.
But Vance said the military must be prepared for a situation where CFB Trenton itself is under quarantine, which is why planning for a possible pandemic is currently underway.
Military officers have also been ordered in a directive Vance issued Wednesday to use their common sense in terms of where to send their troops overseas and participating in large gatherings such as parades and training exercises.
This report by The Canadian Press was first published March 4, 2020.
Lee Berthiaume, The Canadian Press