The disruptions that Hawaii residents are now experiencing over the outbreak of the coronavirus on our shores are just the beginning of what could be a long fight against this disease.

While the trope “this is the new 9/11” has been over-used to the point of absurdity throughout the last two decades, in the case of COVID-19, it is a fairly accurate analogy. Much like the Global War on Terror, we are now engaged in a struggle against an enemy that hides in plain sight; ignores borders; can strike anywhere; and requires constant vigilance and a restructuring of our government to prepare against.

Contrary to what some people may be thinking, the restrictions on public activity including the stay-at-home policies that various jurisdictions — including Oahu and Maui — have been mandating is just the beginning. People don’t all get infected at the same time, which means incubation periods will vary, and social distancing will have to continue in some form until an effective pharmaceutical intervention can be developed.

Oahu residents cast their ballot for the primary election at Central Middle School, Saturday, Aug. 11, 2018, in Honolulu.
Vote by mail is coming at an ideal time, due to the coronavirus, but restrictions on public gatherings will change political campaigning as we know it. Eugene Tanner/Civil Beat

If you thought you were just going to spend the next few weeks at home and then come back to living carefree in the world as it was before the pandemic, you are in for a big surprise. Even with the combination of travel restrictions, deployment of tests, and forthcoming antiviral and vaccine interventions, we are still going to have to adhere to a heightened level of infection control and prevention for some time.

But whatever happens, the world will be very different. Because 2020 is an election year, threat of exposure to COVID-19 will also impact the way candidates campaign for office and the way that the public interacts with them, potentially changing our political landscape.

Thankfully, Hawaii has gone to an all-mail election for 2020, so we won’t have to worry about coronavirus affecting polling sites or deterring people from showing up to vote. In a way, our all-mail election is perfect for times like these. Nevertheless, this year’s election is going to be complicated.

For starters, the restrictions on public gatherings and stay-at-home orders may significantly impact challengers to elected incumbents, as everything from canvassing, to fundraisers, to speaking events, to even collecting signatures for nomination papers will be impacted by social distancing.

Pounding the pavement and knocking on every door to win an election is a surefire way to spread a highly contagious disease throughout the community. This means that candidates will have to consider shifting their outreach strategy to digital marketing, television and radio, or even more direct mailers, which will increase the dollar cost of winning an election in 2020.

This new era is going to take a special type of leader.

The traditional tactics of chili and rice fundraisers in cafeterias, addresses made to packed audiences at special events, massed sign-waving events on the side of the road, party unity brunches, and even national political conventions may be a thing of the past in these times of COVID-19.

As I previously discussed in an earlier column, there are also going to be significant economic impacts to Hawaii as a result of COVID-19, which means that over and above health concerns, voters are likely going to want to vote for candidates or parties that promise the greatest amount of safety or security amidst this crisis.

In years past, the usual, tired platitudes of “new leadership, take care of our keiki and kupuna, steward our island resources, and reduce crime” might have worked, but as the economy continues to sour, as unemployment rises, and as people become more restless by the restrictions placed on them, Hawaii voters are going to want aggressive health and economic policies to save them.

Prospective candidates for office right now should be thinking about emergency management, public health, sanitation, and economic vision as their first priority. To be blunt, if you’re a candidate right now and you’re clueless, unfamiliar or disinterested in any of these things, you should suspend your campaign right now, because that’s going to be the job you sign up for.

We are also going to need candidates who are willing, even with declarations of emergency in place, to commit to public transparency. More often than not, emergency orders are less about kinetic, effects-based responses to crises and more about removing sunshine requirements and making sole-source procurement decisions in secret. We need elected officials who can work within the rules and still solve the problem before us.

This new era is going to take a special type of leader. I’m reminded of how Adm. Hyman G. Rickover once asked a young lieutenant who had just been engaged if he was willing to postpone his wedding date, in exchange for working in the nuclear navy. The lieutenant happily agreed, and Rickover asked him to prove it at once by picking up the office phone and calling his fiancé to tell her the wedding was delayed.

Thinking that he had snagged the job, the lieutenant made the call, only to find a displeased Admiral Rickover staring angrily at him. “You coward,” Rickover grumbled. “If you’re that much of a pushover, you will never have a place in this office, now get out of my sight!”

In the past, Hawaii has gotten by with mediocre candidates and pushovers who managed to make it into office. Today, we are paying the price for it. With this upcoming election, the public needs to know the world has changed – and our elected government needs to change with it too.

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About the Author

  • Danny de Gracia

    Danny de Gracia is a resident of Waipahu, a political scientist and an ordained minister.

    Danny holds a Bachelor of Arts in Political Science and minor in Public Administration from UT San Antonio, 2001; a Master of Arts in  Political Science (concentration International Organizations) and minor in Humanities from Texas State University, 2002.

    He received his Doctor of Theology from Andersonville Theological Seminary in 2013 and Doctor of Ministry in 2014.

    Danny received his Ordination from United Fellowship of Christ Ministries International, (Non-Denominational Christian), in 2002.