The geographical isolation of Hawaii and early travel quarantine protected us from the first wave of the pandemic. Yet many continue to push for lifting the quarantine and inviting visitors back in hopes of returning to the pre-COVID tourism economy.
Unfortunately, even without the uptick of visitors a reopening would bring, COVID-19 cases here have skyrocketed from 25 daily to over 200 daily in a month’s time, the fastest rate of spread anywhere in the U.S.
Experts suggest that even if Hawaii reopens, the number of visitors needed to be profitable will not come if their safety is not assured. To devastate the health of our communities and the integrity of our health-care system in a doomed attempt to resuscitate tourism makes no sense.
Thankfully, our volcanic islands provide a metaphor for a better way forward: a kipuka. Like islands of vegetation in the middle of barren lava, Hawaii can become an oasis of health and harmony in the midst of a COVID-infested world. We can choose the goal of eradicating the virus and use our geographic isolation, local culture of laulima (cooperation), and strong kipuka-based public policies to prevent the virus from re-entering and spreading in Hawaii.
There is evidence here and worldwide that when the coronavirus surges, the economy shrinks. When the virus is suppressed, the economy starts to recover. The best thing we can do for the economy is to get rid of the virus.
Much is made of the fact that tourism is 35% of Hawaii’s economy. People forget that the non-tourism sector, 65% of Hawaii’s economy, is almost twice as large as the visitor economy.
The non-tourism economy shuts down when the coronavirus is loose in the community, but when the virus is eliminated, those with money to spend (e.g., retirees, online, essential, government and construction workers) feel free to go out to eat, visit other islands, throw weddings and parties. People get haircuts and massages, schedule dental appointments and elective surgeries, go to the movies. Mental health improves. Elderly get to see their family and friends again. Schools, from preschools to higher education, operate normally, and parents return to work without worrying about their kids.
Kauai and New Zealand have both shown that a COVID-free kipuka is possible, Kauai was virus-free for 65 days; New Zealand for 102 days. New Zealand used a rigorously enforced quarantine system of 26 hotels and strategic testing to process 30,000 returning residents (the country is not yet open to visitors) without one case escaping into the community. Life went back to normal. Likewise, on Kauai, after nine weeks of no new cases, residents enjoyed the freedom of relaxed restrictions, and it seemed conceivable to send our children back to school.
Unfortunately, due to Hawaii’s inadequate quarantine system, cases started reappearing on Kauai in June. In New Zealand a family of four was recently found to be infected, and that has quickly grown into 90 cases — but according to a plan laid out ahead of time, the city of Auckland was immediately shut down and aggressive contact tracing began.
It is this kind of proactive planning and swift action toward a zero-virus goal that we need from our state and county governments. Securing and maintaining our kipuka will take a unified commitment from all of us — leaders and citizens. We cannot allow ourselves or our leaders to underestimate this virus if we want to protect our people and the economy.
May the vision of kipuka inspire us all to live with aloha, and may it instill our leaders with the kuleana (responsibility) and courage to make the tough decisions to protect our residents and grow a flourishing New Economy.
Kapono Chong-Hanssen, M.D., is medical director of Hoʻola Lahui Hawaiʻi and the Kauai Community Health Center; JoAnn A. Yukimura is former Kauai County mayor and councilmember. They are members of the Kauai COVID Discussion Group (email@example.com).