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Surge in Hawaii coronavirus cases highlights disparities for Pacific Islanders

Pacific Islanders make up just 4% of Hawaii’s population but represent 27% of the islands’ latest COVID-19 cases, far more than any ethnic group.

The next largest number of cases across the islands — 20% — have been diagnosed among whites, who comprise a full quarter of the islands’ population, according to the latest state Department of Health data released each Friday. (The next highest rates of COVID-19 were seen among Filipinos, 18%, and Native Hawaiians, 14%, according to the latest data. No other ethnic group had double-­digit numbers.)

Unlike whites, the prevalence of COVID-19 among Pacific Islanders could further stigmatize Hawaii’s Pacific Islander community, which generally includes people descended from Tonga, Samoa, Fiji, Tahiti, Papua New Guinea and the Marshall Islands, among other Pacific islands, said Tevita O. Ka’ili — dean of the Faculty of Culture, Language and Performing arts at Brigham Young University-Hawaii, who also oversees Native Hawaiian Studies and Pacific Island Studies at BYU-H.

“I’m very concerned about that,” Ka’ili said. “That will perpetuate the stigma and stereotypes of a marginalized group here in Hawaii, especially Micronesians. Micronesians, in particular, have a lot of difficulties and tension with the larger, mainstream population.”

Funerals have been linked to some clusters of COVID-19 on Oahu and Ka’ili hopes that Pacific Island families adapt by social distancing, wearing masks and limiting turnouts to just 10 people or fewer to stop the spread and prevent potential COVID-19 related deaths.

But it will be difficult.

“Funerals are big in the Pacific Islander community,” Ka’ili said. “We’re talking hundreds of people flying in from all over the United States and from all over the Pacific islands. And it can be very difficult (to maintain social distance) when people are hugging, saying hello to each other.”

Lt. Gov. Josh Green this morning is scheduled to meet remotely with 10 to 20 leaders of Hawaii Pacific Island churches to discuss ways to practice social distancing, especially at funerals, and to help break down cultural barriers to reduce the spread of COVID-19. One possible option could be to rotate groups of 10 mourners at a time, Green said.

Since the outbreak, Pacific Islanders have represented as many as 32% of Hawaii’s COVID-19 cases, Green said.

“The Pacific Islander community has some unique challenges, particularly while living in very large, committed, multi-generational families — a lot of them in Kalihi,” Green said. “Funerals have been a concern. That’s the one setting in which it’s almost impossible not to ask someone to express emotion and be close to one another. It is a challenge.”

Pacific Islanders are particularly susceptible to COVID-19 in Hawaii because they tend to have lots of human contact as front-line workers, such as in fast food or retail. And new immigrants tend to “live in denser neighborhoods, especially public housing,” said Dr. Neal Palafox, of the University of Hawaii’s John A. Burns School of Medicine.

Palafox lived and worked in the Marshall Islands for 10 years and currently works with churches and three different COVID-19 response teams with Native Hawaiian and Pacific Islander populations.

When there is an infection, Palafox said, it’s harder for family members to practice social distancing. At the same time, communication barriers — along with general suspicion of health care workers — makes it harder to get accurate information on exactly who may have been in contact with an infected patient and when and where, Palafox said.

“Navigation of the system is not built for them,” he said. “They don’t feel culturally safe. What the pandemic has shown … is that it actually increases the disparities.”

In May, advocates representing Native Hawaiians and Pacific Islanders created the Native Hawaiian & Pacific Islander Hawai‘i COVID-19 Response, Recovery & Resiliency Team, in part to get more and accurate data on their communities.

Since then, Hawaii is “the only state where that data is distinctly separate,” said Kim Birnie, communications coordinator at Papa Ola Lokahi.

On Monday, state Health Director Bruce Anderson said at a press conference with Gov. David Ige that “over one-third” of Hawaii’s COVID-19 cases are linked to people of Pacific Islander descent “for various reasons, largely due to socioeconomic status, but also culturally. They’re living in close proximity to each other. … We’re going to need to make sure we’re focused on the outreach and education. … It’s certainly important to recognize we’re seeing disparities and to focus on those.”

Anderson did not respond to a request for an interview from the Honolulu Star-Advertiser on Wednesday.

Tina Tauasosi-Posiulai of the Native Hawaiian & Pacific Islander Hawai‘i COVID-19 Response, Recovery & Resiliency Team said the group has been urging state health officials to team up to conduct better education and outreach, especially to Pacific Islanders — an assertion backed up by Green.

“They’re right on the mark,” Green said. “There’s a lot of work to go around.”

Tauasosi-Posiulai said, “We speak the language. There is a lack of collaboration. What works for this population is communication, us going out to the people and informing them about this pandemic.”

Two funerals are planned among Pacific Islander families on Oahu — one this week, and another in two weeks. And Tauasosi-Posiulai said volunteers from her organization have spoken to both of the families, who were receptive to ideas to reduce the spread of COVID-19 — especially if they can reduce the spread to elders.

“They said, ‘I’m so glad that you guys came,’” Tauasosi-Posiulai said.

The volunteer outreach workers also offered masks for mourners to wear at both services, Birnie said.

Tauasosi-Posiulai, who was born and raised in Samoa and has a Ph.D in sociology from the University of Hawaii, speaks to middle school and high school students — especially those descended from the Pacific Islands — about pursuing education through the UH system.

Now with the school year stumbling toward a start in the era of COVID-19, Tauasosi-Posiulai worries that Pacific Islander students — especially children of low-income parents — will be further stigmatized and bullied, especially if their families cannot afford masks to wear at school.

The result could affect the students’ willingness to attend school, learn and succeed academically.

“Kids are going to say, ‘Let’s stay away from the Micronesians because they have the virus,’ even if they don’t,” Tauasosi-Posiulai said. “That’s going to be a disaster for a lot of Micronesian students.”

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