AP exposes allegations of a “toxic atmosphere” and “a culture of systemic bullying and public ridiculing” that may have undermined WHO’s pandemic response in much of Asia.

London-based medical writer Maria Cheng, drawing on leaked emails, interviews, recordings and her deep understanding of the organization, revealed that dozens of staffers have accused the head of a World Health Organization office responsible for much of Asia of racism and abuse, and that his actions allegedly hampered the U.N. agency’s effectiveness to curb the COVID pandemic. The dramatic story, which sparked an international outcry, earns AP’s Best of the Week — First Winner.

As reported exclusively by Cheng, Dr. Takeshi Kasai, the regional director of WHO in the Western Pacific, was accused of asking a staffer “if she was incapable of delivering good presentations because she was Filipina.” He was also accused of blaming the rise in COVID cases in some countries on their “lack of capacity due to their inferior culture, race and socio-economic level.”

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WHO Western Pacific Regional Director Dr. Takeshi Kasai prepares to address the agency’s region annual meeting in Manila, Philippines, Oct. 7, 2019.

AP Photo / Bullit Marquez

Cheng obtained an internal email where “concerned WHO staffers” said Kasai had engaged in racist, unethical and abusive behavior that had undermined the U.N. health agency’s pandemic response; an internal complaint filed with WHO in October accused Kasai of much the same thing. She confirmed some of the allegations through recorded snippets of two WHO meetings where Kasai is heard making derogatory claims about staffers based on nationality.

Cheng also talked to 11 current or former staff members who accused Kasai of racism, as well as an expert who had heard about the restiveness in Kasai’s office.

Her reporting put the story in context; Kasai’s office oversees China, where the pandemic is believed to have started. Staffers complained that the departure of more than 55 WHO personnel from this region, most not replaced, had significantly contributed to a surge in cases in many countries. In addition, Kasai was accused of sharing COVID information improperly with his home country, Japan, for its political gain.

In an email to the AP, Kasai denied allegations of racism and unethical behavior. He said that after receiving the email from personnel last week, he immediately took steps to communicate with all his staff. “I ask a lot of myself, and our staff,” he said. “This has particularly been the case during the COVID-19 response. But it should not result in people feeling disrespected.”

Cheng put the story in context: Staffers claimed the exodus WHO staffers in the region contributed to a surge in cases in many countries.

Cheng’s story was explosive. At Saturday’s closing session of WHO’s board meeting, several countries pressured the organization to investigate the allegations of misconduct as reported by the AP. Reuters picked up the story with full credit to the AP, and the piece drew reaction from Japan, Australia, Britain, the U.S. and France, which said possible consequences could include the termination of the WHO director’s contract.

By Monday, WHO director-general Tedros Adhanom Ghebreyesus said an investigation had started into the allegations.

For deeply reported, groundbreaking work that has had an impact, Cheng is AP’s Best of the Week — First Winner.

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