During challenging times like these, it is important — perhaps even lifesaving — to use creativity to solve dire problems. The US Navy has sent its two hospital ships to New York and Los Angeles to treat the large numbers of COVID-19 patients. However, Canada currently has no such ships. Traditionally, hospital ships are used to offer aid to foreign countries in crisis. But they are also invaluable at home for civil emergencies.

One benefit of hospital ships is their mobility. They can be deployed where the need is greatest. They are largely self-sufficient with their own power, water, food, etc. But perhaps one of the more significant benefits during a pandemic is their ability to isolate the patients. When tuberculosis was widespread, many dedicated hospitals were set up to isolated and treat patients with that disease. Medical ships like CD Howe and MV Christmas Seal travelled to remote communities to conduct tuberculosis screening and provide medical care.

We can, and should, take lessons learned in the past. During WWI, Canada had five hospital ships that ferried wounded soldiers back to Canada. At the start of the war, Britain did not have a hospital ship. But in a mere four days, three ocean liners were converted and set up with all the necessary medical staff and supplies. Three weeks later, six more ships were converted. Granted, at that time the supplies were simple. Today the equipment required such as monitors, ventilators and IV pumps are complex and limited in supply.

Perhaps we could be inspired by a clever solution for disinfecting the ships that was put in place by the Aquitania. She was fitted with a device that used the ship’s electric current to produce hypochlorite from the electrolysis of sea water. The process was so effective that no cases of secondary infection occurred.

During WWII, Canada estimated it would require two hospital ships to evacuate 10,000 casualties from Europe per year. The first converted ship was the Lady Nelson in 1943. The second ship put into service, the Letitia, was reportedly the most advanced hospital ship of its day, including two operating rooms and x-ray machines. Together, Canada’s hospital ships are estimated to have evacuated 28,000 casualties of war with a combined 46 voyages.

So what can Canada do now? We have no hospital ships to deploy, but we have a history of converting passenger ships into hospital ships in times of need. Old cruise ships could be quite easily converted into hospital ships.

One challenge may be acquiring the medical equipment to furnish the ships. But we should not doubt the ingenuity and motivation Canadians can demonstrate during a crisis. Conversion of ships may not be a practical solution today, but perhaps we should consider building hospital ships so we are better positioned in the future.

The photo in this post shows Prince George (I), one of the first WWI naval hospital ships, at Hyder, Alaska. No date. From the VMM collections.


· McDermott, LCdr (ret’d) Tim. “Why Doesn’t Canada Have a Military Hospital Ship?” Esprit De Corps, May 10, 2016. http://espritdecorps.ca/why-doesnt-canada-have-military-hospital-ships/2016/5/10/why-doesnt-canada-have-a-military-hospital-ship#comments-5731e7bfb09f95e472bfbbe6=.

· Macphail, Sir Andrew. “Royal Canadian Navy Medical Service During WWI.” In Official History of the Canadian forces in the Great War 1914-19 : The Medical Services. Ottawa : F. A. Acland, King’s Printer, 1925. https://archive.org/details/medicalservices00macpuoft/page/90/mode/2up

· Feasby, W. R. Official history of the Canadian medical services, 1939-1945. Vol. 1, Organization and Campaigns. Ottawa: E. Cloutier, Queen’s Printer, 1956. https://www.canada.ca/content/dam/themes/defence/caf/militaryhistory/dhh/official/book-1956-medical-services-1-en.pdf