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WHO Asia chief accused of racism, abuse put on leave


Maria Cheng
Associated Press Medical Writer

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

A few months ago, an Associated Press investigation showed that dozens of staff members accused him of racist, abusive and unethical behavior that undermined the UN agency’s efforts to stem the coronavirus pandemic in Asia.

WHO Director-General Tedros Adhanom Ghebreyesus told Western Pacific staff in an Aug. 26 email that Kasai was on “leave”, without elaborating further. Tedros said Deputy Director-General Dr Zsuzsanna Jakab would “ensure business continuity”. Two senior WHO officials, who asked not to be named because they were not authorized to speak to the media, said Kasai had been placed on administrative leave after internal investigators confirmed some misconduct complaints.

In a statement, the WHO said it was unclear how long Kasai would be away. The U.N. health agency said its investigation into him was continuing, and it was believed to be the first time the regional director had been relieved. Kasai did not respond to a request for comment, but has previously denied that he used racist language or acted unprofessional.

In January, the Associated Press reported that more than 30 unidentified staff members sent a confidential complaint to senior WHO leadership and members of the organization’s executive committee, alleging that Kasai was making a a “toxic atmosphere”. Documents and recordings show Kasai made racist remarks about his employees and blamed the rise of COVID-19 in some Pacific countries on their “incapacity due to cultural, ethnic and socioeconomic low levels.”

Several WHO staff working under Kasai said he improperly shared sensitive coronavirus vaccine information to help his native Japan get political points through donations.

Days after the AP report, WHO Director-General Tedros Adhanom Ghebreyesus announced that an internal investigation into Kasai had begun. However, a few months later, WHO staff claimed that Kasai was rigging the investigation. In a letter sent to the executive committee of the UN agency’s top governing body in April, staff wrote that Kasai had ordered senior managers to destroy any incriminating documents and instructed IT staff to “monitor all staff emails.”

Kasai is a Japanese doctor who started his career in Japan’s public health system before joining WHO, where he worked for over 15 years.

Lawrence Gostin, director of the WHO Collaborating Center for Public Health Law and Human Rights at Georgetown University, said even the temporary removal of the WHO regional director would be “unprecedented.” “WHO has a lot of bad regional directors, but I’ve never heard of such an operation,” Gostin said.

Any withdrawal of support for Kasai from Japan could hasten his dismissal. A Japanese government official, speaking on condition of anonymity, said they hoped the WHO had conducted an impartial investigation.

Kasai’s removal stands in stark contrast to the WHO’s past reluctance to punish perpetrators of unethical and sometimes illegal behavior, including sexual abuse detected during the Ebola outbreak in Congo from 2018 to 2020. More than 80 outbreak responders sexually abused vulnerable women at WHO’s direction; senior WHO management was told multiple allegations of exploitation in 2019, but refused to act, an Associated Press investigation found Even promoted one of the relevant managers. No senior WHO staff linked to abuse has been dismissed.

“These allegations damage the WHO’s reputation,” Gostin said, adding that Congo’s lack of accountability was “really outrageous.” He welcomed the disciplinary action against Kasai and called on the WHO to issue an investigation in some form.

Gostin and other public health scholars said Kasai’s contract could be terminated if the WHO’s executive board determined that he had violated his contract by engaging in alleged racist and abusive practices.

The WHO’s own staff association urged Tedros to take action against Kasai at a meeting in June, saying it “would be a tragic mistake” not to do so, according to a memo from the private briefing.

Staff warned Tedros: “If action is not taken quickly…the results could be seen as questionable, fixed and comical at best.” “If (Kasai’s) wrongdoing is proven, one would assume that many other projects were Swipe aside to save face.”

Ahead of Kasai’s furlough, WHO’s Western Pacific office plans to set up a town hall to address “workplace culture” issues, including concerns about racism and abuse. The meeting has been postponed, Kasai Chief of Staff Dr. Angela Pratt announced in an email to staff.



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