Japan's government said Friday it will watch the World Health Organization's investigation into staff complaints over racism and abuse by a top Japanese official at the agency but denied it inappropriately received sensitive vaccine information from him.
WHO staffers have alleged that Dr. Takeshi Kasai, the U.N. health agency's top director in the Western Pacific, engaged in unethical, racist and abusive behaviour, undermining their efforts to curb the coronavirus pandemic, according to an internal complaint filed last October.
The complaints were also emailed to senior WHO leaders last week and describe a “toxic atmosphere” with “a culture of systemic bullying” at WHO's regional headquarters in the Philippines. Recordings obtained by The Associated Press also showed that Kasai, who heads a vast region that includes China and Japan, made derogatory remarks to his staff during meetings based on nationality.
Kasai denied the allegations.
Koichiro Matsumoto, Deputy Cabinet Secretary for Public Affairs at the Prime Minister's Office, told the AP on Friday the government understands the WHO is taking appropriate steps and that Japan plans to carefully watch the WHO investigation.
Matsumoto denied that the Japanese government inappropriately received sensitive vaccine information from Kasai that he allegedly obtained by abusing his position.
“There is no truth (to the allegation) that the Japanese government inappropriately accepted sensitive information related to our vaccine contributions,” he said.
He said Japan takes seriously the importance of maintaining equal and fair access to safe, effective and high-quality vaccines for all countries and regions, and that the Japanese government has been providing support through cooperation with COVAX, an international cooperative program formed to make sure low- and middle-income countries have fair access to Covid-19 vaccines, as well as with WHO and related governments.
Since June 2021, Japan has provided 42 million doses of Covid-19 vaccine — 17.6 million doses through COVAX and 24.6 doses via bilateral deals.
Australian Health Minister Greg Hunt said Friday he had been unaware of the allegations against Kasai before reading media reports and would seek a briefing from the WHO.
He suggested the WHO's internal processes for examining such significant allegations would benefit from some kind of external oversight.
“We will be asking the WHO for independent advice as to the nature and response to these claims,” Hunt said.
The claims add to a litany of internal protests from WHO personnel about the agency's management of the pandemic during the last two years, including privately complaining about China's delayed sharing of information while publicly praising the government.
The WHO has dealt with internal complaints from staffers alleging systemic racism, sexism and other problems before. Its director-general Tedros Adhanom Ghebreyesus ordered an internal probe in January 2019 to assess such allegations. Last year, the AP reported that senior WHO management was informed of multiple sexual abuse reports involving its own staffers during the Ebola outbreak in Congo, but failed to act.
WHO staffers said they took their complaints directly to Australia's Department of Foreign Affairs and Trade to ask for help because the Australian government is regarded as one of the most influential WHO member countries in the region.
The staffers said Australia told them to file their complaints through the WHO.