WHO Asia director accused of racism, abuse put on leave

LONDON (AP) — The World Health Organization’s top director for the Western Pacific, Dr. Takeshi Kasai, has been removed from his post indefinitely, according to internal correspondence obtained by The Associated Press.

Kasai’s removal comes months after an AP investigation revealed that dozens of staffers accused him of racist, abusive and unethical behavior that undermined the UN agency’s efforts to stop the coronavirus pandemic in Asia.

WHO Director-General Tedros Adhanom Ghebreyesus told Western Pacific staff in an email on Friday that Kasai was “on leave” without elaborating. Tedros said that the Deputy General Director, Dr. Zsuzsanna Jakab, will arrive on Tuesday in Manila, the WHO regional headquarters, to “ensure business continuity”. Two senior WHO officials, who asked not to be named because they were not authorized to speak to the press, said Kasai was placed on extended administrative leave after internal investigators documented some of the allegations of misconduct.

In a statement, the WHO said it was unknown how long Kasai would be out. The UN health agency said the investigation against him was ongoing and it was believed to be the first time a regional director had been relieved of his duties. Kasai did not respond to requests for comment, but previously denied using racist language or acting unprofessionally.

In January, the AP reported that more than 30 unidentified officials sent a confidential complaint to senior WHO leadership and members of the agency’s Executive Board, alleging that Kasai had created a “toxic atmosphere” at WHO’s offices in the Western Pacific. Documents and recordings showed that Kasai made racist comments to his staff and blamed the rise of COVID-19 in some Pacific countries on their “lack of competence due to their inferior culture, race and socio-economic level”. Several WHO officials working under Kasai said he improperly shared sensitive information about the coronavirus vaccine to help Japan, his home country, score political points with its donations.

Days after the AP report, WHO chief Tedros announced that an internal investigation into Kasai had been launched. Several months later, however, WHO officials alleged that Kasai was manipulating the research. In a letter sent to the UN’s top governing body, the Executive Council, in April, officials wrote that Kasai had ordered senior officials to destroy any incriminating documents and instructed IT staff to “monitor the emails of all staff members.” .

Kasai is a Japanese doctor who began his career in his country’s public health system before moving to the WHO, where he has worked for more than 15 years.

Removing a WHO regional director, even temporarily, is “unprecedented,” according to Lawrence Gostin, director of the WHO Collaborating Center for Public Health Law and Human Rights at Georgetown University. “There have been many bad regional directors at the WHO, but I have never heard of such action,” Gostin said.

Any withdrawal of Japanese support for Kasai could hasten his dismissal. A Japanese government official who spoke on condition of anonymity said he hoped the WHO had conducted a fair investigation.

Kasai’s removal stands in stark contrast to the WHO’s previous reluctance to discipline perpetrators of unethical and sometimes illegal behavior, including sexual abuse exposed during the 2018-2020 Ebola outbreak in Congo. Over 80 WHO-led outbreak responders sexually abused vulnerable women. an AP investigation found that senior WHO management was informed of multiple claims of exploitation in 2019 but refused to act and even promoted one of the administrators involved. No senior WHO official linked to the abuse has been fired.

“The WHO’s reputation has been shaken by these allegations,” Gostin said, calling the lack of accountability in Congo “truly outrageous.” He welcomed the disciplinary action taken against Kasai and called on the WHO to release his research in some form.

Gostin and other public health academics said that if the WHO’s Executive Board finds that Kasai violated his contract by engaging in the alleged racist and abusive behavior, his contract could be terminated.

The WHO staff union urged Tedros to take action against Kasai at a meeting in June, saying failure to do so “would be a tragic mistake,” according to a memo from the private briefing.

“Unless swift action is taken … the results may be seen as questionable at best, consistent and farcical at worst,” Tedros’ staff warned. “If (Kasai’s) offense is proven, the assumption will be that many other items were set aside to save face.”

Before Kasai was placed on leave, WHO’s Western Pacific office had planned a town hall this week to address “workplace culture,” including concerns about racism and abusive behavior. In an email to staff on Saturday, Dr. Angela Pratt, director of Kasai’s office, announced that the meeting had been postponed.


Mari Yamaguchi in Tokyo contributed to this report.

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