WHO staff complaint, emails allege racism and abuse in Asia

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Staff accused the World Health Organization’s Western Pacific senior director of racist, unethical and abusive behavior that has undermined the UN health agency’s efforts to curb the coronavirus pandemic.

The allegations were set forth in an internal complaint filed in October and in an email sent last week by unnamed staff to WHO senior leadership and its executive board and obtained by AP. Two of the authors said that more than 30 current and former WHO officials were involved in drafting the email.

The internal complaint and email describe a “toxic atmosphere” with “a culture of systemic bullying and public ridicule” at the WHO Western Pacific headquarters in Manila, led by Dr. Takeshi Kasai, director of a vast region. which includes China and Japan. obtained recorded snippets of meetings in which Kasai is heard making derogatory comments about staff based on nationality. Eleven former or current WHO staff members who worked for Kasai told the AP that he frequently used racist language.

The complaint and message also accused Kasai of inappropriately sharing potentially sensitive vaccine information with his home country of Japan.

In an email to AP, Kasai denied the allegations of racism and unethical behavior.

“I put a lot of demands on myself and on our staff,” he said. “This has been particularly the case during the response to COVID-19. But it shouldn’t result in people feeling disrespected.”

Kasai said he was committed to making changes that would ensure “a positive work environment.” However, an internal WHO message seen by AP shows that at a meeting last week, Kasai ordered all of his top directors to “reject” the accusations in the email and to “fully support” him.

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The internal complaint filed with the WHO alleges that Kasai once aggressively questioned a Filipino staff member during a coronavirus meeting, saying, “How many people in the Pacific have you killed so far and how many more do you want to kill more?” The complaint says that she then asked “if she was unable to put on a good performance because she was Filipino.”

Several WHO officials present when the remarks were made confirmed to the AP that the regional director has made numerous racist comments at meetings.

The email also said that Kasai blamed the rise in COVID cases in some Pacific countries on their “lack of capacity due to their culture, race, and lower socioeconomic status.” Three WHO staff members told the AP that Kasai said in numerous WHO discussions that the coronavirus response was hampered by “a lack of sufficiently educated people in the Pacific.”

Kasai has rejected accusations that he ever used racist language.

“It is true that I have been harsh on staff, but I reject the suggestion that I have targeted staff of any particular nationality,” he said.

The claims add to a litany of internal protests from WHO staff over the agency’s handling of the pandemic, including privately complaining about China’s delay in sharing information while publicly praising the government. .

“We request your urgent intervention to address our serious concerns…that are negatively impacting WHO’s performance,” the staff members wrote.

Kasai is a Japanese doctor who began his career in his country’s public health system before moving on to the WHO. He is credited with developing the region’s response to emerging outbreaks after the SARS epidemic in 2003.

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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 “battered” during the pandemic. .

Gostin said racism in a WHO office at the center of the pandemic would be “unconscionable” and that the accusations damaged the WHO’s credibility.

WHO staff also alleged that Kasai abused his position to assist the Japanese government in COVID-19 vaccination planning by providing sensitive data. Many countries expect the WHO not to share details on sensitive topics like vaccination unless they give explicit consent.

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

Kasai questioned whether he had ever inappropriately shared information with Japan.

“At no time have I pressured staff to facilitate donations from Japan instead of COVAX,” he told the AP.

The WHO has dealt with internal complaints from staff members alleging systemic racism, sexism and other misconduct before. Last year, an AP investigation found that WHO senior management was made aware of multiple reports of sexual abuse involving its own staff during the Ebola epidemic in Congo, but failed to act.

The authors of the email from the WHO in Asia said most of them had filed complaints “exhaustively” through various WHO mechanisms, including its ombudsman, ethics hotline and office of internal oversight, but they had not been informed of any investigation.

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Under the WHO structure, regional directors are largely answerable only to the member countries that elect them and the executive board that confirms their selection. Kasai could run again next year when his current term expires.

Kasai does not report to WHO Director-General Tedros Adhanom Ghebreyesus, but “all staff are subject to the authority of the Director-General,” according to agency rules.

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 “ready to cooperate fully with any process to investigate the concerns that have been raised.”

In a virtual meeting this week, the WHO executive board is scheduled to discuss issues including 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 address racism.”

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www.independent.co.uk

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George Holan

George Holan is chief editor at Plainsmen Post and has articles published in many notable publications in the last decade.

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