Dispatch of medical team to Chile called off

by Masami Ito

The government abruptly called off sending an emergency medical team to earthquake-hit Chile on Tuesday after Santiago declined the offer of assistance.

The government had planned to send a medical team of about 20 members on a chartered flight and Monday dispatched three advance team members plus a Defense Ministry staffer to assess the situation after the weekend killer temblor and tsunami.

The relatively swift decision to send the team was an attempt to avoid a repeat of the criticism that Japan was late in dispatching help to Haiti after that nation was devastated by a quake in January.

Foreign Minister Katsuya Okada, speaking at a press conference, quoted the Chilean government as saying it “appreciates Japan’s offer but . . . Chile was declining medical teams from abroad,” adding, “I was given the report (of Chile’s decision) early this morning and we decided to cancel the dispatch.”

Chief Cabinet Secretary Hirofumi Hirano speculated that Santiago was concerned about security and the country was not yet prepared to receive medical help.

Okada said that while Chile’s declining the offer was unexpected, such things are inevitable in natural disasters.

Instead of sending more people, for the time being, Japan has agreed to make an emergency grant aid of up to $3 million and to provide an additional ¥30 million worth of tents, generators and water purifiers.

Okada acknowledged that “in the strict sense of the word, there was no coordination” with Chile, but said Santiago had asked for field hospitals capable of performing surgery.

“I don’t really understand, because if (the Chilean government) was asking for field hospitals, naturally, I thought doctors were necessary, too,” Okada said. But “unlike the Haitian government, which had fallen into dysfunction, the Chilean government is working fine so I believe we must respect its wishes.”

In January, when a magnitude 8.0 earthquake struck Haiti, Japan was slow to react. The first emergency medical team began operations on Jan. 18, six days after the temblor hit.

“I know that there is criticism about (Japan’s response) to Haiti, but I don’t think the timing was late . . . considering the security situation,” Okada said, adding the team needed to find interpreters, secure a place for their medical work, and have Sri Lankan soldiers protect them at all times. “I talked directly with the medical team members after they returned and they said they couldn’t have done anything had they gone any sooner.”