WHO staffers have accused its Western Pacific director of racism and abuse

Current and former staff have accused the director general of the World Health Organization in the Western Pacific of racist, unethical and abusive behavior that has undermined the UN health agency’s efforts to curb the coronavirus pandemic.

The allegations were laid out in an internal complaint filed in October and again in an email last week, sent by unidentified “relevant WHO staff” to senior management and the board and obtained by the Associated Press. Two of the authors said that more than 30 staff members were involved in writing it and that it reflected the experiences of more than 50 people.

The internal complaint and email describe a “toxic atmosphere” with “a culture of systemic intimidation and public ridicule” at the WHO Western Pacific headquarters in Manila, led by Dr Takeshi Kasai, Director of a vast region that includes China and its country of origin. from Japan. The AP also obtained taped clips of meetings where Kasai is heard making disparaging remarks about his staff based on his nationality. Eleven former or current WHO staffers who worked for Kasai told the AP that he frequently used racist language.

The staff, who did not identify themselves to the WHO “for fear of reprisals”, said in the email that Kasai’s high-handed style led to the departure of more than 55 key staff at the past year and a half, most of which have not been replaced. . This has resulted in a lack of understanding and engagement with member countries which “contributed significantly” to an increase in cases in many countries in the region, they said. However, other WHO staff pointed out that the spikes in COVID cases were due to many reasons, including countries’ own resources and the timing of their national efforts.

The complaint and post also accuse Kasai of inappropriately sharing potentially sensitive vaccine information with Japan, one of 37 countries in the region it rules.

In an email to the AP, Kasai denied the allegations of racism and unethical behavior. He said after receiving the email last week, he immediately took steps to communicate with all of his staff.

“I ask a lot of myself and our staff,” he said. “This has been particularly the case during the COVID-19 response. But that shouldn’t make people feel disrespected.”

Kasai said he was determined to make changes that would ensure “a positive working environment” for all WHO staff in the region. However, an internal WHO message seen by the AP shows that in a meeting last week, Kasai ordered all of its senior directors and country representatives to “dismiss” the charges in the e-mail. mail and to “fully support” him.

Among the most damning claims, Kasai allegedly made “racist and derogatory remarks to staff of certain nationalities”. The internal complaint filed with the WHO alleges that Kasai once aggressively questioned a Filipino staff member during a meeting about the coronavirus, saying: “How many people in the Pacific have you killed so far? now and how many more do you want to kill?” The complaint said he then asked “if she was unable to give good introductions because she was Filipino.”

Several WHO officials present during the statements confirmed to the AP that the regional director had made numerous racist comments during meetings disparaging people from countries including China, the Philippines and Malaysia. They said harassed staff members were sometimes driven to tears.

The email also said that Kasai had blamed the increase in COVID cases in some countries on their “lack of capacity due to their lower culture, race and socio-economic level.” Three WHO staff members who were part of the agency’s coronavirus response team in Asia told the AP Kasai has repeatedly said in meetings that the COVID response is being hampered by “a lack of sufficiently educated people in the Pacific”.

Kasai has dismissed allegations that he has ever used racist language.

“It is true that I was tough on the staff, but I reject the suggestion that I targeted staff of a particular nationality,” he said. “Racism goes against all the principles and values ​​that I hold dear as a person…I believe deeply and sincerely in the mission of WHO to serve all countries and all people.”

The claims add to a litany of internal protests by WHO staff over the agency’s handling of the pandemic over the past two years, including privately complaining about China’s delay in sharing information. while publicly praising the government. In their complaint, WHO staff chastised Kasai for “not daring to criticize the Chinese authorities” and not disclosing what happened during a trip to Beijing to meet President Xi Jinping shortly. long after the identification of the coronavirus in Wuhan.

“We seek your urgent intervention to address our serious concerns…which are negatively impacting WHO’s performance to support (countries) in the region and WHO’s ability to function as an organization of effective public health, especially during the COVID-19 pandemic,” the staffers wrote.

Kasai is a Japanese doctor who began his career in his country’s public health system before joining the WHO, where he worked for more than 15 years. He is credited with developing the region’s response to emerging epidemics after the SARS outbreak in 2003.

Lawrence Gostin, director of the WHO Collaborating Center on Public Health Law and Human Rights at Georgetown University, said he was in contact with many people in the Western Pacific office and knew they felt beaten during the pandemic.

“Dr. Kasai entered office with a good reputation, as a reasonably strong public health leader with the support of his country,” Gostin said. “But I was not surprised to hear these allegations.”

Gostin said racism in a WHO office at the center of the pandemic would be “unconscionable” and that the allegations undermined the WHO’s credibility and ability to do what was needed during the pandemic.

“If you ever needed WHO and its major regional offices to act with one voice, with one purpose and with great energy, it would be now,” he said. “And the fact that the staff are so demoralized, feel so defeated, so humiliated and the morale is so low, it’s hurting the pandemic response in the region.”

In the email, staff members accused Kasai of not adhering to WHO’s own guidelines in the pandemic due to forced return to the office and travel during the strict lockdown in Manila. In an internal email to staff dated April 1, 2020, he said that three people from the Manila team had COVID but that “we need to stay functional… This has meant keeping our country offices and the regional office open to a certain level.” Some staff feared that parts of the councils – including carpooling with other staff and continuing to share desks – could put them at higher risk of catching COVID -19.

WHO staff members have also alleged that Kasai abused his position to help the Japanese government with COVID-19 vaccination planning by providing confidential data. Many countries expect the WHO not to share details about sensitive issues such as disease rates or vaccination unless they explicitly consent.

A WHO scientist who has worked on COVID-19 vaccination in Asia told the AP that Kasai has shared data with Japan so the government can decide how to give doses to its regional neighbors for a political advantage. The staff member, who asked not to be identified for fear of reprisal, said Kasai had also pressured WHO staff to prioritize vaccine donations from Japan over the UN-supported COVAX effort.

In his response to the AP, Kasai disputed that he ever inappropriately shared information with Japan.

“At no time did I pressure staff to facilitate donations from Japan rather than COVAX,” he said. “The vast majority of vaccine donations from Japan to other countries in the Western Pacific region have been made through COVAX (effort.)”

Japan has donated about 2.5 million doses to countries in the WHO’s Western Pacific region through COVAX since June, according to data this month from its Foreign Ministry. In contrast, Japan has donated more than 11 million doses bilaterally over the same period to countries like Vietnam, Malaysia and the Philippines.

The WHO has already dealt with internal complaints from staff members alleging systemic racism, sexism and other issues; its chief executive Tedros Adhanom Ghebreyesus ordered an internal investigation in January 2019 to assess these allegations. Last year, the AP reported that WHO senior management had been made aware of several reports of sexual abuse involving its own employees during the Ebola outbreak in Congo, but had failed to act.

The authors of the WHO Western Pacific email said most of them had “comprehensively” filed complaints through various WHO mechanisms, including its ombudsman, hotline ethics hotline, its staff association and its internal oversight office, but had not been informed of any investigation into their allegations.

Within the governance structure of WHO, regional directors are largely accountable only to the member countries who elect them and to the executive board which confirms their selection. Kasai was elected by Western Pacific member nations in 2019 and could run for re-election next year.

WHO headquarters in Geneva said in an email that it was “aware of the allegations and is taking all appropriate steps to follow up on the matter”. Kasai said in a statement that he was “prepared to cooperate fully with any process to investigate the concerns that have been raised.”

Kasai does not technically report to Tedros, but “all staff members are subject to the authority of the chief executive,” according to the agency’s staff regulations. During a press briefing last April, Tedros praised Kasai as “my brother” and thanked him for “all you continue to do to serve the people of the Western Pacific”.

In a virtual meeting this week, the WHO’s board is expected to discuss issues such as the ongoing response to the COVID-19 pandemic. Also on the agenda are various “management issues”, including the prevention of abuse and harassment and “increased efforts to combat racism”.

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