By MARIA CHENG
AP Medical Writer
LONDON (AP) — The World Health Organization’s top director in the Western Pacific, Dr. Takeshi Kasai, has been indefinitely removed from his post, 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 U.N. agency’s efforts to stop the coronavirus pandemic in Asia.
WHO Director-General Tedros Adhanom Ghebreyesus told staff in the Western Pacific in an Aug. 26 email that Kasai was “on leave” without elaborating further. Tedros said Deputy Director-General, Dr. Zsuzsanna Jakab, will “ensure business continuity.” Two senior WHO officials who asked not to be identified because they were not authorized to speak to the press, said Kasai had been put on extended administrative leave after internal investigators substantiated some of the misconduct complaints.
In a statement, WHO said it was unknown how long Kasai would be away. The U.N. health agency said the investigation into him was continuing and that it was believed to be the first time a regional director had been relieved of their duties. Kasai did not respond to requests for comment but previously denied he used racist language or acted unprofessionally.
In January, the AP reported that more than 30 unidentified staffers sent a confidential complaint to senior WHO leadership and members of the organization’s Executive Board, alleging that Kasai had created a “toxic atmosphere” in WHO’s offices across the Western Pacific. Documents and recordings showed Kasai made racist remarks to his staff and blamed the rise of COVID-19 in some Pacific countries on their “lack of capacity due to their inferior culture, race and socioeconomics level.”
Several WHO staffers working under Kasai said he improperly shared sensitive coronavirus vaccine information to help Japan, his home country, score political points with its donations.
Days after the AP report, WHO chief Tedros announced that an internal probe into Kasai had begun. Several months later, however, WHO staffers alleged that Kasai was manipulating the investigation. In a letter sent to the U.N. agency’s top governing body in April, the Executive Board, the staffers wrote that Kasai had ordered senior managers to destroy any incriminating documents and instructed IT staff “to monitor emails of all the staff members.”
Kasai is a Japanese doctor who began his career in his country’s public health system before moving to WHO, where he has worked for more than 15 years.
The removal of a regional director at WHO, even temporarily, is “unprecedented,” according to Lawrence Gostin, director of the WHO Collaborating Center on Public Health Law and Human Rights at Georgetown University. “There have been a lot of bad regional directors at WHO, but I’ve never heard of action like this,” Gostin said.
Any withdrawal of support from Japan for Kasai could hasten his dismissal. A Japanese government official who spoke on condition of anonymity said they hoped WHO had conducted a fair investigation.
Kasai’s removal stands in stark contrast to WHO’s past reluctance to discipline perpetrators of unethical and sometimes illegal behavior, including during the sex abuse uncovered during the Ebola outbreak in Congo from 2018-2020. More than 80 outbreak responders under WHO’s direction sexually abused vulnerable women; an AP investigation found senior WHO management was informed of multiple exploitation claims in 2019 but refused to act and even promoted one of the managers involved. No senior WHO staffers linked to the abuse have been fired.
“WHO’s reputation was shattered by those allegations,” Gostin said, calling the lack of accountability in Congo “truly outrageous.” He welcomed the disciplinary action taken against Kasai and called for WHO to release its investigation in some form.
Gostin and other public health academics said that if WHO’s Executive Board determines that Kasai violated his contract by engaging in the racist and abusive conduct alleged, his contract could be terminated.
WHO’s own staff association urged Tedros to take action against Kasai at a meeting in June, saying that failing to do so “would be a tragic mistake,” according to a memo from the private briefing.
“If swift action is not taken … the results may be regarded as questionable at best, fixed and farcical at worst,” the staffers warned Tedros. “If (Kasai’s) wrongdoing is proven, the assumption will be that many other items were swept aside to save face.”
Before Kasai was put on leave, WHO’s Western Pacific office had planned a town hall to address “workplace culture,” including concerns about racism and abusive conduct. In an email to staff, Dr. Angela Pratt, a director in Kasai’s office, announced that the meeting had been postponed.