Who could be WHO’s next Western Pacific leader?


There are hopes a Pacific person will head the Western Pacific region for the World Health Organisation (WHO).

It follows the sacking of regional director Takeshi Kasai after allegations of harassment, abuse and racism, and an internal investigation resulted in findings of misconduct.

Kasai was accused of unethical behaviour during the Covid-19 pandemic, including aggressive communication and racial comments, leading to more than 50 staff resignations.

An Associated Press investigation last year reported documents and recordings where Kasai blamed Covid-19 spread in some Pacific nations on their “lack of capacity due to their inferior culture, race and socioeconomic level”.

It’s the first time in WHO’s history that a regional director has been dismissed. Former associate Minister of Health Aupito William Sio Aupito represented New Zealand at an Executive Committee meeting in Manila to consider the fate of Kasai.

Aupito said strong leadership of the World Health Organisation is crucial, especially in the Pacific region.

“From New Zealand’s perspective, that office is quite an important office in delivering health security for member countries in our region, and that requires an office that provides good strong leadership and a safe working environment that is free of abuse of power.”

New Zealand will endorse the Pacific candidate when nominations open next month.

Who could be WHO’s next Western Pacific leader?

University of Auckland associate professor Sir Collin Tukuitonga was one of the four candidates shortlisted for the role in 2018, and says it’s a prime opportunity for Pacific representation.

“They really need to get a suitable Pacific individual as their candidate and everyone to unite behind that person because otherwise it’ll just revert back to Korea or Japan or China and it’s not good for the region. So the real problem is the region needs to stick together.”

Sir Tukuitonga will not stand again for the role due to existing commitments.

Tonga and French Polynesia have already highlighted their interest in the position, and Aupito said whoever stands needs regional backing.

“It’s important for the Pacific Health ministers to work out a process where we unite around who was our best candidate and that we make sure that we get commitment from all the Pacific Forum leaders.”

In January, the AP reported that a WHO doctor hoping to replace Kasai as regional director in the Western Pacific had previously faced sexual misconduct accusations.

Internal documents showed senior WHO managers were aware of past sexual harassment claims involving Fijian physician Dr Temo Waqanivalu, who also was accused of assaulting a woman at a Berlin conference. With support of some WHO colleagues and his home country, Dr Waqanivalu was preparing to run for the regional director job.

The official election for the role will be held in October.
There are six WHO regional offices, and the Western Pacific region covers 37 countries and 1.9 billion people, including New Zealand, the Pacific islands and China.