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Hawaii expatriate in New York warns islanders to stay on guard against COVID-19

                                Kiana Davenport said once the pandemic hit New York City, store shelves were empty. A shopper in New York browses the empty shelves at a supermarket in after panic-buying cleared the shelves.


    Kiana Davenport said once the pandemic hit New York City, store shelves were empty. A shopper in New York browses the empty shelves at a supermarket in after panic-buying cleared the shelves.

                                Kiana Davenport


    Kiana Davenport

In light of scientists’ warnings of a second COVID-19 wave, Honolulu expatriate Kiana Davenport, who has been confined alone in a rented New York City studio apartment since March 22, said she feels alarmed by the relaxed attitude she encounters when she calls to check on family back home.

“I have cousins all over — Kalihi, Aiea, Pearl City, Kapolei, Waianae and on Kauai and Maui — and they’re so casual about it; they’re not wearing masks, they’re hanging out together on the beach and drinking beer,” she said, noting that New York beaches are closed indefinitely.

The Kalihi-born Davenport, an alumna of Farrington High School and the University of Hawaii at Manoa, said she hoped the islands could continue to evade heavy casualties — as of Sunday, Hawaii had a total of 632 cases and 17 deaths, compared with New York state’s 338,519 cases and 26,584 fatalities — and urged islanders not to let down their guard.

“I’m begging my cousins to wear masks, stay away from others, follow the rules to keep this virus at bay,” she said, adding that she has a “real fear” because she and many of her family members are of Native Hawaiian ancestry, a group that, along with Pacific Islanders, suffers disproportionately higher rates of infection from the corona- virus, recent studies show.

In addition, a higher incidence of underlying conditions such as diabetes, hypertension, cardiovascular disease, obesity and asthma among people of these ethnicities raises their risk of more severe cases of COVID-19.

The award-winning author of “Shark Dialogues” and several other novels and story collections, Davenport, 79, said she’s been healthy except for a brief fever, but her career has been derailed. A stage adaptation of her novel “Song of the Exile” by the Mead Center for the American Theater in Washington, D.C., has been put on hold, and she feels her newly completed novel, “Mauna Kea,” is in limbo.

But such disappointments barely register, she said, as she loses friends and neighbors in the city to the virus.

“The only thing that seems real to me right now are the heartbreaking numbers of sick and dying,” she said, recalling a recent day she volunteered in a line of citizens passing boxes from trucks on Fifth Avenue to the field hospital tents in Central Park, and saw freezer trucks lining the streets “because they don’t have anywhere to put the corpses. It’s so frightening.”

Walking back to her building on East 86th Street, she observed a passersby on the normally preppy Upper East Side dressed in “this really weird, lockdown chic — everybody looks like serfs from the time of the czars.”

Rather than risk exposure to the virus in apartment building laundry rooms or public laundromats, “People are wearing old clothes and worn-out shoes to do their errands and just putting them in bags and leaving them on the sidewalks when they get dirty,” she said.

“Hawaii people are so lucky they can wash their clothes, drive cars to get groceries and get in the ocean, which I miss more than anything,” Davenport said.

In New York City, once an unrivaled center of commerce and now the epicenter of COVID-19, food and other necessities have been and remain in short supply.

“It reminds me of Russia, the only place until now I would go into a store and there would be nothing on any of the shelves,” Davenport said. “We’re out foraging for food, walking for miles like wolf packs every day.”

Recently, seeing a delivery truck in front of her local Fairway market, “I went rushing in, and there was a 2-pound bag of rice and I screamed and grabbed it,” she said, “and then I saw a can of black beans, and I held it to my heart like it was a precious heirloom.”

On the bright side, every other day she masks up, puts on gloves and takes speed walks in Central Park, a block from her home.

“We’re having beautiful weather,” she said. “All the trees have been blooming, and there are millions of squirrels, birds, almost no traffic, no carbon emissions— nature is coming back to life, but at a cost of thousands of human lives.”

Central Park was eerily quiet, Davenport said, apart from the songs of birds, and police patrolling on horseback, enforcing social distancing.

Still, so many people weren’t heeding the rules that on Friday, New York City Mayor Bill de Blasio imposed capacity limits in the city’s popular Hudson River and Domino parks, and Davenport worried, “if this virus makes a comeback, they’ll close Central Park and people will go nuts.”

But in spite of everything, she added, the city retains its “magical” capacity to pleasantly surprise.

Some days she helps deliver cartons of food to homeless shelters from restaurants participating in the program Rescuing Leftover Cuisine.

“On Saturday night,” she said, “as we were piling up the boxes (outside) the women’s shelter at Lenox Hill Armory, the doors opened, and from inside those vast echoing halls, someone was playing a piano … ‘Claire de Lune.’ Folks stood paralyzed at the beauty of it.”

In the cold air of a starry night, the volunteers stood there listening until the music ended, Davenport said.

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