“Abusive” regional director’s removal taints WHO credibility in Asia-Pacific

March 20, 2023 People's Journal 398 views

THE firing of a top World Health Organization (WHO) official based in Manila for alleged racist misconduct has tainted the agency’s credibility in the region and put in question its handling of global health issues.

The WHO recently announced the termination of Dr. Takeshi Kasai’s appointment as regional director in Western Pacific after an internal investigation led to “findings of misconduct.” Dozens of staff members earlier accused Dr. Kasai of racist, abusive and unethical behavior that may have compromised the agency’s pandemic response.

Dr. Lorenzo Mata, president of tobacco harm reduction (THR) advocacy group Quit for Good, said the latest controversy involving a top WHO official is the latest in a string of scandals that has blotted the world health body’s reputation in the region.

Dr. Mata said that aside from its widely perceived mishandling of the COVID-19 pandemic response, the WHO also stirred controversy with its flip-flopping stance on smoke-free alternatives to cigarettes like heated tobacco products and vapes.

“The WHO found itself in the same situation two years ago when their credibility took a hit in the Philippines. They previously stated that e-cigarettes are equally as harmful as cigarettes, but they backtracked during a Congressional hearing when they admitted that e-cigarettes are less harmful,” Dr. Mata said.

Dr. Mata, a leading voice on THR who has spoken about the advocacy in global platforms like the Asia Harm Reduction Forum and the Scientific Summit on Tobacco Harm Reduction, expressed fear that WHO’s “lack of transparency and ineptitude” and the “horrible racism within its ranks” would once again manifest when the agency convenes this November the 10th Conference of Parties (COP) for its Framework Convention on Tobacco Control (FCTC) treaty.

The FCTC is a global accord on tobacco control under the auspices of the WHO and governed by the COP composed of representatives from all signatories to the treaty. The FCTC conducts a biennial meeting to discuss the progress of the treaty’s implementation and policy recommendations for its member states.

The Philippines is a signatory to the FCTC and decisions made at the COP could affect millions of Filipinos dependent on the tobacco industry. “We don’t want a bunch of racist bureaucrats discriminating against marginalized Filipino farmers and poor Filipino smokers who will be deprived of better alternatives,” Dr. Mata said.

“The staff complaint has existed since 2021. The staff exhausted all means available. Yet WHO leadership failed to take decisive action until now. How can we expect accountability and impartiality from the WHO when this is how it handles internal matters of global consequence?

This clearly calls into question WHO’s competence and capacity,” Dr. Mata added.

Allegations against Kasai describing a toxic atmosphere and “a culture of systemic bullying” which “reflected the experiences of more than 50 people” were first laid out in an anonymous internal complaint in 2021 and an email in 2022 sent to senior WHO leadership.

Under WHO’s governance structure, regional directors are answerable only to the member countries that elect them and to the executive board that confirms their selection. Kasai was elected by member countries in the Western Pacific in 2019.

The dismissal follows a 2022 investigation by the Associated Press where damning recordings and documents were obtained of Kasai hurling derogatory remarks about staff based on their nationalities and blaming the COVID-19 surge in some countries on their “lack of capacity due to inferior culture, race and socio-economic level.”

WHO staffers interviewed by AP said Kasai repeatedly told them in meetings that the insufficient COVID response was due to “a lack of sufficiently educated people in the Pacific.”

Staffers said his style of leadership directly resulted in more than 55 key staff members resigning from the organization. They claim this led to a lack of understanding and involvement with member countries that “significantly contributed” to the COVID-19 spike within the region.

Such was the extent of Kasai’s alleged harassment that it created a “lack of trust” in WHO as staffers feared retaliation if they spoke out against him.

According to confidential materials obtained by the AP, Kasai had even manipulated at least one performance evaluation of a subordinate.

The complaint also detailed Kasai asking a Filipino staffer during a coronavirus meeting, “How many people in the Pacific have you killed so far and how many more do you want to kill further?”

The email accused Kasai of disrespecting WHO’s own pandemic guidelines by forcing employees to return to the office during Manila’s lockdown period. Ignoring staff concerns, in a 2020 internal email Kasai said the office “must remain functional” even if three people on the Manila team had already contracted COVID.

WHO staffers said Kasai abused the privileges of his position by providing confidential data to the Japanese government. This would allow Japan to strategize targeted vaccination donations to its neighboring countries, paving the way to secure political leverage over the region.

Personnel also faced pressure from Kasai to prioritize vaccine donations from Japan over the U.N-backed COVAX effort.

Months following the AP report, staffers then alleged Kasai of manipulating the internal investigation by ordering his senior managers to destroy incriminating documents and instructing IT staff to monitor all personnel emails.

Despite dealing with reports of several WHO officials involved in cases of sexual abuse and exploitation in past years, the dismissal is the first time that the health agency has fired a top-level official.