The appearance of the coronavirus pandemic and the mandatory closure of nonessential businesses has left many Hawaii residents in limbo.

On Friday, the state reported that 170,985 unemployment claims were filed last month, which is equal to almost a third of all private jobs in Hawaii, and a quarter of all jobs in the state, when government workers are counted. By contrast, during the height of the 2007-2009 Great Recession, some 7.3% of locals were unemployed.

It goes without saying that Hawaii’s economy is disproportionately dependent on the service industry and tourism, and times like these have been especially difficult for persons who work in those sectors.

Unemployment claims have skyrocketed in recent weeks, as Hawaii’s tourism industry has come to a halt. 

In February of this year, some 70,100 people worked in retail; 70,800 worked in food service and drinking places; and another 13,600 were in arts, entertainment and recreation. While exact details of jobs lost in March are not yet available, it is highly likely that many of the unemployment claims will be wage employees working in those professions.

The economic disparity in outcomes between Hawaii residents who have salaried jobs that either pay them to “telework” at home or who are considered essential to remain on duty, compared with wage-earning service workers, couldn’t be sharper. The longer the coronavirus stay-at-home orders continue, the longer Hawaii’s service industry is likely to suffer.

Understandably, many people forced out of work are beginning to struggle with intense anxiety or depression at home. Because schools are also closed, parents must also now supervise children who may be restless from COVID-19 cabin fever or social distancing requirements that keep them from their playmates.

As a chilling, albeit Kafkaesque preview of what Hawaii and mainland families might soon encounter, divorces skyrocketed in China as quarantine restrictions were lifted, with many working families unaccustomed to being in such close proximity together for long periods of time.

The combined stress of being unemployed, facing an inevitable flood of bills, tension with family members, and fears of infection make for an awful burden to place on the shoulders of Hawaii residents who were probably already stressed out about life in the islands long before the coronavirus.

And while some might take comfort in the fact that, at least for now, their job is considered “essential” and they have the means to survive at home, eventually as the economy dies, more jobs will be cut — even among traditionally safe fields like government.

Why is this important to know, you might ask? It’s time for a wake-up call to realize where we are right now as a community.

Coronavirus Is Amplifying Disparities

As discussed in last week’s column, the $1,200 rebates that residents will be getting won’t go very far, and even if an additional round of stimulus checks get passed by the federal government, no amount of virus welfare can replace the loss of a job.

Sooner or later, the stimulus checks will run dry. Checking accounts will empty and savings will dry up, and Hawaii’s poor and most vulnerable are going to be hurting like never before in recent memory.

We have serious structural issues in the way Hawaii works and who it works for, and the coronavirus has only served to amplify the disparities among us.  The very reason why it is important to have a balanced economy, a good government and a prospering citizenry is because of times like these when having a buffer to live on means everything.

For years, Hawaii has run a thin red line, shunning opportunities for economic growth, holding back progress, and failing to provide a way for residents to keep more of their hard-earned money. Today, in this time of plague and famine, our weakest and most vulnerable are paying the price for squandering our opportunities and bad governance during times of plenty.

We are going to need to create a new economy on whatever remains of the old one.

The long-term effects of coronavirus are going to be bad, but starting now, we need to start thinking about how we will rebuild Hawaii to be a more equitable, affordable and livable place.

I’ve often been asked by people in emails and private messages on social media why I complain so much about government and local conditions. I do it for the invisible residents of Hawaii who are suffering and have no voice of their own. It’s time for all of us to start thinking about one another, and our future.

When the all-clear at last comes, when the last sick person is healed, when our streets are full again, we need to work to diversify Hawaii’s economy, to create independence in our production and supply, and to make sure that our government is held accountable for its failures.

We are going to need to create a new economy on whatever remains of the old one. We can’t rely on the old model which depends solely on tourism, consumerism and a palace economy run by state and local government.

We need to lower the cost of living, break the influence of monopolies on our political system and make Hawaii once more a place where people don’t have to be forced off an island to survive.

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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.