Current and former WHO staff are seeking an investigation and decision from WHO’s executive board, raising fundamental questions over the leadership of the World Health Organisation (WHO) Western Pacific Regional Office (WPRO) director, Dr Takeshi Kasai.

They claim his leadership style has impacted the work culture of the regional office so much that it has affected COVID-19 delivery to the Western Pacific region, asking for an investigation into record staff turnover in the last 18 months as part of a series of complaints against the regional director.

PACNEWS has sighted a copy of the complaint from ‘concerned WHO staff’, who are asking for urgent intervention to address ‘serious concerns about the abusive conduct of the regional director, Dr Takeshi Kasai, which is negatively impacting WHO’s performance to support Member States in the region, and WHO’s ability to function as an effective public health organisation, especially in response to the COVID-19 pandemic.”

The letter says more than 55 senior management and key technical professionals have left their jobs in the last 18 months, either resigning or being reassigned to other roles in the organisation. The writers claim most of those jobs have not been filled, or have been downsized, or given to short term consultants.

The letter details disturbing allegations of instances and conversations of senior managers and professionals being intimidated, put down in front of colleagues, or forced to resign. Their concerns are grouped under claims of abusive, racist leadership, mismanagement of the COVID-19 pandemic response from WHO-WPRO, wasteful spending, and nepotism.

The writers say they had to present the letter anonymously for fear of reprisals.

In an email to WHO colleagues this month, Kasai said he was aware of the information being circulated, and would not address the detail to the claims, except for the allegations of racism.

“I categorically reject any accusation of racism towards, or racist comments about, any culture or country: this goes against all of the principles and values I hold dear as an individual and an international civil servant and have throughout my life and career. I believe deeply and sincerely in WHO’s mission to serve all countries and people in our Region, and my belief in the importance of this mission drives every decision and action that I take as WHO Regional Director.”

His email ends: “I am sincerely sorry to know that some current and former staff have concerns about my management style and WPRO culture, particularly during the last two years – which have been a stressful and difficult time for health professionals all over the world, including WHO staff. I greatly appreciate the role and contribution of all the WHO workforce in our Region to WHO’s work, and as Regional Director I am committed to doing all I can to ensure our staff feel that their work and their contribution to WHO’s mission is meaningful and valued.Sincerely, Takeshi Kasai”

The staff complaint, and Dr Kasai’s reply, come as the WHO Executive Board members convene their virtual meeting this week. The 34-member board represents the WHO global membership, with the Western Pacific region represented by Japan, Malaysia, Korea, Singapore, and Tonga.

The WHO Executive Board meeting which ends today is to vote in second term for Kasai.

New Zealand campaigned in support of Dr Colin Tukuitonga for the position in 2019 and he came second out of the four candidates in the running. The other chief candidates were from the Philippines and Malaysia.

Dr Tukuitonga was unanimously nominated by Pacific health ministers in 2017 as their candidate for the Regional director position. New Zealand subsequently supported Dr Tukuitonga, who is a New Zealander of Niuean origin.