Everyone has a plan to save the state.

The University of Hawaii Economic Research Organization has a plan to control the epidemic and bring back the economy. The UH Public Policy Center has a plan to crush the curve. The Hawaii State Commission on the Status of Women has a feminist recovery plan. Gov. David Ige is proposing pay cuts for state workers.

Of course, the state needs saving. One in three workers have filed for unemployment. Tourism numbers are near zero. Businesses are closing.

The shelter-in-place orders seem to have worked, and the curve is flattening. So far, the medical system has not been overwhelmed with COVID-19 patients. We bought time to scale up testing. Now, we risk the cure killing the patient.

Maikiki Library open sign for Olivia's story.
When will it be time to reopen businesses, workplaces and public spaces? Cory Lum/Civil Beat

Our leaders are in an unenviable position. If they relax restrictions in May and infections spike, they’ll be blamed. If they keep restrictions in place, they’ll be held responsible for economic calamity. They’re caught between a rock and a hard place.

This month, Alan Oshima was appointed Hawaii Economic and Community Recovery and Resiliency Navigator, and he’s been tasked with crafting an effective long-term economic plan. Such a process will undoubtedly please some and anger others.

Ultimately, our leaders are asked to weigh public health against economic health. They must also balance loss of life with loss of quality of life. And they must decide who will pay. All we can ask is that our leaders are thoughtful and transparent in the way they decide between these goals.

Public Health Vs. Economic Health

When can we reopen public schools? Some people want to wait until we haven’t had any new infections for two weeks. Others would prefer that schools open tomorrow. What should we do?


Distance learning may be possible for some students, but many lack access to high-speed internet connections, or they live in chaotic and unsafe homes. And many families can’t afford child care, so school provides more than education; it’s also a caretaker. The longer schools are closed, the more strain these families face.

Will reopening schools pose a public health risk? In short, yes.

I’ve taught in schools and universities for a decade. There’s no question that schools play a major role in the transmission of disease. Flu season comes each year, and students spread germs like mad.

Social distancing isn’t going to be possible in overcrowded classrooms. Thus, the question isn’t whether reopening schools will result in more coronavirus spread. The question is how severe the increase will be and whether the risk is worth it.

When can we reopen businesses? The same considerations that affect schools apply. We can’t afford to leave businesses closed for long. As they shed workers, demand drops further, compounding our economic woes.

We’ll never have perfect safety, but we can enact precautionary measures. Our leaders will have to draw on best practices from abroad, equip businesses with the knowledge and material necessary to reopen, and pray for the best.

The Louis Vuitton store in Waikiki is one business that has been boarded up as owners wait for the government’s OK to return to normal. Cory Lum/Civil Beat/2020

Loss Of Life Vs. Loss Of Quality Of Life

In a recent panel discussion, the philosopher Peter Singer argued that, at some point, we will have to ask under what conditions “we are willing to trade off loss of life against loss of quality of life.”

Assuming a 60% infection rate and 1% mortality among the infected, Hawaii could experience up to 8,400 deaths from COVID-19. Based on our experience so far, our death toll is likely to be fewer than that.

Meanwhile, prolonged stay-at-home, work-from-home orders will definitely increase unemployment, poverty and homelessness. For those obeying the orders to stay home, even simple pleasures like walking in the park are illegal.

Singer pointed out that governments don’t spend their entire budgets saving lives. Thus, the decision to lock down our state reflects a balance between preserving life and preserving quality of life. The relevant question isn’t whether we have to choose; the question is whether we’re choosing wisely.

Our leaders are tasked with determining the value of human life. This calculus may seem fraught, but it’s easy when compared to the far more contentious debate about who will pay for the recovery.

Who Will Pay?

It is charitable to say that Gov. David Ige made a mistake when he proposed a 20% pay cut for state employees before “volunteering” to take a pay cut himself.

Leaders should lead by example, as in the military. Alexander the Great and Julius Caesar fought alongside their men. Of course, modern military leaders need some distance from the firefight to direct the action, but the principle remains.

The question is who will bear the burden of austerity.

In a recent interview, former Defense Secretary James Mattis noted that in the infantry, officers always eat last and never live better than the troops.

The question isn’t whether the state will implement austerity measures. Our constitution prohibits deficit spending; as revenues decrease, so must our spending.

The question is who will bear the burden of austerity. Pay cuts and furloughs are the tip of the spear. Layoffs come next.

As many critics have noted, cutting salaries reduces spending, pushing our state deeper into depression. Therefore, our leaders should pursue all available alternatives. Can we raid special funds? Can we save money by making processes more efficient? Can we redeploy idle workers into useful ventures?

When pay cuts are necessary, Ige should lead by example and accept a substantial pay cut for the duration of the crisis. If statutes prohibit this, he can donate his salary to relief funds. Leaders eat last.

Tradeoffs are universal. The best we can expect from our leaders is an honest account of how they make decisions when forced to choose. Now is the time for tough decisions.

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