World Health Organization Regional Director for the Western Pacific Takeshi Kasai attends a briefing on October 7, 2019 in Manila, Philippines. Current and former employees have accused Kasai of racist, unethical and abusive behavior that has undermined the United Nations health agency’s efforts to curb the coronavirus pandemic. (Bullit Marquez/AP)
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TOKYO — The Japanese government said on Friday it would monitor the World Health Organization’s investigation into staff complaints of racism and abuse by a senior Japanese official at the agency, but denied receiving any inappropriately sensitive vaccine information from him.
Meanwhile in Geneva, the French diplomatic mission said that if the allegations were found to be true, possible consequences would include termination of the WHO director’s contract.
An investigation by the Associated Press this week revealed that WHO staff members alleged that Dr Takeshi Kasai, director general of the UN health agency in the Western Pacific, had engaged in unethical, racist and abusive behavior undermining the WHO’s efforts to curb the coronavirus pandemic, according to an internal complaint filed last October.
The complaints were also emailed to senior WHO officials last week and describe a “toxic atmosphere” with “a culture of systemic intimidation” at WHO regional headquarters in the Philippines. Tapes obtained by the AP also showed Kasai, who rules a vast region that includes China and Japan, made disparaging remarks about his staff based on nationality during meetings.
Kasai denied the allegations.
Koichiro Matsumoto, assistant cabinet secretary for public affairs in the Japanese prime minister’s office, told the AP on Friday that the government understands the WHO is taking appropriate action and that Japan plans to carefully monitor the investigation.
Matsumoto denied that the Japanese government inappropriately received sensitive information about Kasai’s vaccines that it obtained by abusing its position.
“There is no truth (in the allegation) that the Japanese government improperly accepted sensitive information related to our vaccine contributions,” he said.
He said Japan takes seriously the importance of maintaining equal access to coronavirus vaccines for all countries and regions, and the government has provided support through cooperation with COVAX, a cooperative program supported by the UN formed to fairly distribute COVID-19 vaccines around the world.
Australian Health Minister Greg Hunt said on Friday he was unaware of the allegations against Kasai before reading the media reports and would seek a briefing from the WHO.
He suggested that WHO’s internal processes for reviewing such important claims would benefit from external scrutiny.
“We will seek an independent opinion from the WHO on the nature and response to these claims,” Hunt said.
In Geneva, British Ambassador to the UN Simon Manley said there was no room for discrimination at the WHO and that the UK expected the agency “thoroughly investigate all allegations of misconduct” and support those affected.
France, which sits on the WHO’s board, said it received a copy of the complaints emailed last week.
“If these events turn out to be true, it will be up to the director general of the World Health Organization to take all the measures he deems appropriate,” the French mission said.
France said the consequences could include consulting WHO chief Tedros Adhanom Ghebreyesus with the WHO’s executive board over the “possible termination” of Kasai’s contract.
Sheba Crocker, US ambassador to the UN in Geneva, said the US was “deeply concerned” by reports of racism and misconduct.
“We call on WHO leaders to respond quickly and directly to these allegations,” Crocker said in a statement, adding that the investigation would be monitored “with the utmost vigilance.”
The WHO said it was aware of the allegations and was taking action, but gave no details.
In an email to staff this week, Kasai said he was “committed to listening openly, thinking carefully about how I can improve, and making changes that will ensure a positive work environment.” He said the issues would be discussed at an upcoming WHO staff retreat next month.
The allegations of racism and abuse add to a litany of internal protests by WHO staff over the agency’s handling of the pandemic over the past two years, including complaining privately about the late sharing of information from China while publicly praising the government.
Last year, the AP reported that WHO senior management had been made aware of several reports of sexual abuse involving its own staff during the Ebola outbreak in Congo, but did not. acted.
WHO staffers said they took their complaints directly to the Australian government asking for help, as the Australian government is considered one of the most influential WHO member countries in the world. region.
In October, the director of Australia’s Department of Foreign Affairs and Trade advised one of the WHO staff in an email to take their complaints to the WHO. Staff members said they had not been told of any WHO investigation into their numerous allegations since.
Yanzhong Huang, a senior global health fellow at the Council on Foreign Relations, said the problems at the WHO “highlight the institution’s internal governance and management problems”.
Huang said WHO headquarters in Geneva does not exercise close enough oversight over its regional offices, leaving significant accountability issues.
“Political and bureaucratic issues have undermined WHO’s ability to effectively address major global health challenges, such as COVID-19,” Huang said in an email.
Keaten reported from Geneva. Associated Press writers Rod McGuirk in Canberra, Australia and Maria Cheng in Toronto contributed to this report.