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Hawaii News | Wealth of Health

Column: New economy, green initiatives and social justice

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COVID-19’s long shadow stretches far beyond the infectious disease pandemic. Besides the obvious distress of the virus, nationwide protests and cries against racial injustice reflect a still greater cauldron of social and economic disparities that need to be addressed.

How can we, as a society, make sense of a stock market rally that has in weeks mostly rebounded from a 37% drop, while unemployment numbers are higher than at any time since the Great Depression? This rally is on fragile ground and driven by too few big corporations (think Apple, Microsoft, Amazon, Netflix) and masks the fact that the status quo has been decimated and might never recover.

So many lost jobs will not return. The visitor industry in Hawaii and elsewhere will not rebound anytime soon, and construction and defense contracts will be unpredictable in the intermediate term. The future of the state coffers remains worrisome. Local, national and global politics are in turmoil. In truth, we have no choice but to lay the groundwork for a new economy focused on green initiatives and built on a foundation of social justice.

The first inkling of the real possibility of positive change resulting from this crisis could be seen in Wuhan, China. There, while sheltering in place, people looked up and saw blue sky for the first time. The news went viral and spread some much-needed hope around the world. The COVID pandemic can be seen as a wake-up call reminding us to get it together in our relationships with one another and the natural environment.

It’s time now, more than ever, to double down on incentives for renewable energy. Globally, renewable energy, including nuclear, is growing, but not enough. It’s still dwarfed by gas, coal and oil. Hawaii has long been a leader in the solar industry owing in no small part to our 35% state tax credit on top of the now waning federal credits. Now is the time to remove excessive red tape and better incentivize the industry to greatly expand jobs for both residential and commercial solar installations.

Food and water security are also paramount. While the amount of arable land on the islands is limited in comparison with the population size, there is still so much to be done. Despite a steady consensus to work toward food security and independence from the steady stream of containerships that feed the islands, progress must accelerate. We have to invest even more in healthy farming methods and farming education to increase local production. It is equally important to carefully steward our precious sweet water resource, including catchment and storage as well as safety and allocation. Upgrades to infrastructure for management of gray water and sewage capacity are also crucial despite the expense. Rivers of bacteria flowing into the ocean with each strong rain are a danger we can’t afford to live with.

Hawaii’s most abundant yet most fragile resource is its kai (the near ocean, home to the reef) and the moana (the deep sea, home to pelagic fish). Managed wisely, our fisheries will be strong with enough abundance to feed us for a long time to come. The unacceptable alternative is more reef dying and our fisheries continuing to decline.

COVID-19 has reminded us that we are all connected on this fragile blue planet and that sustainable energy and management of our natural resources — including food, water and the ocean — directly or indirectly affects climate change, specifically global warming. Now is the time for us to acknowledge that visitors, defense and construction, which have historically sustained the local economy, are all at risk. The only viable option is to invest in green initiatives built on a foundation of social justice, with particular attention being paid to health and wealth disparities. These are the choices we must make if we are to secure the future for our keiki.

Remember, too, that fostering good physical and mental health is a prerequisite to doing our part to address climate change and social injustice. Too many of my patients who are deeply committed to positive change on a large scale tend to neglect themselves. During a pandemic one might expect more visits for medical care, yet many have postponed necessary health care during this time, including screening, prevention and treatment of chronic disease.

As Hawaii opens up, Manakai has started to see a substantial increase in call volume. All indications are that we’re beginning to catch up in taking care of our personal health issues. This is a good sign, for in order to do the big, necessary work of meeting today’s societal and climate challenges, we must care for ourselves and emulate the change we wish to see in our shared world.

Ira Zunin is a practicing physician. He is medical director of Manakai o Malama Integrative Healthcare Group and Rehabilitation Center and CEO of Global Advisory Services Inc. Please submit your questions to

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