About the Author

N. Kaui Baumhofer

N. Kaui Baumhofer is an assistant professor of Indigenous Health Sciences at the University of Hawaii West Oahu.

“I’m so ready for this to be over.” “When are we going to be able to go back to normal?”

These were the statements I kept hearing in conversations with friends, family members, and colleagues two weeks ago. Since the deaths of Aubrey Ahmaud, Breonna Taylor, and George Floyd have taken spotlight on the national stage, these conversations have taken on a distinctly different tone.

Now they are starting to question whether we should ever go back to the “normal” that was the foundation for both the heartbreaking disparities in COVID-19 mortality and the deaths of these three (and far too many other) individuals. Both of these national crises stem from the same root cause: deep structural inequalities that are a result of a nation built on greed and racist ideology.

Black Lives Matter marchers leave Ala Moana Beach Park on their way to Ala Moana Beach Park.
Many of the Black Lives Matter marchers in Honolulu earlier this month also wore face masks to guard against COVID-19. Hawaii has a rare opportunity to respond wisely to these twin crises. Cory Lum/Civil Beat/2020

The mechanistic links between structural inequalities and the health disparities (including police violence) seen now are often intuitive, but not explicit. On the first day of an introductory course I teach at the University of Hawaii West Oahu I do an exercise with my students that is taken from Paulo Freire’s method of raising critical consciousness. Students are provided with a photo of a person engaging in some detrimental behavior and to keep asking each other “Why?” until they get to a “root” social, political, or economic cause.

The point of the exercise is to help them understand the idea that individual behavior or choices don’t exist in a vacuum. Rather, they are shaped by physical, social, and economic environments, which are shaped by policies.

Cultural Value System

Ultimately, our policies are shaped by a cultural value system and ideology. In America, where “your zip code is a stronger predictor of your health than your genetic code,” our policies and the institutions that implement them are built on racism and fueled by greed.

Unfortunately, this reality has been present here in Hawaii for over two centuries and nowhere is it more apparent than in our neocolonialist tourism economy that functions to keep many of our brown and indigenous residents, as well as our aina, in a position of service to 10 million tourists a year.

(Just sit with that number for a minute – 10 million tourists a year. Is there anyone out there that thinks that is too low of a number, that we need more?)

Last month, Denby Fawcett wrote an excellent piece titled “We’re Going To Have To Get Over Our Anger Towards Tourists.” Fawcett emphasized the need to attract fewer, but higher quality tourists who are willing and able to spend far larger amounts of money per capita than today’s arrivals.

We will always need to have some level of our economy dedicated to tourism, but what if we could somehow limit that number to the more reasonable 3.9 million that we had in 1980?

What if we could use the excess human and physical capital for Hawaii instead of selling out our environment for a quick buck now with a side of rising income inequality?

Care For Our People

We are all familiar with the physician shortage we are facing here in Hawaii, but did you know that physicians are only one of many health care worker shortages and not even the worst one?

A 2019 report by the Healthcare Association of Hawaii documented 2,200 open positions in 76 different professions including registered specialty nurses, nurse aides, medical assistants, and phlebotomists.

Kapiolani Community College has recently started a tuition-free Rapid Healthcare Education Program as a way to retrain workers via short-term courses for a new career in the health care system.

Feed Ourselves

One of the most important revelations of the COVID-19 pandemic has been the spotlight on Hawaii’s food system. More than ever we can see the twin needs to support our local farmers and to feed our residents.

The 2018 Hawaii Farmer Needs Assessment Survey indicated that access to labor, land, and capital were significant barriers to increasing local food production. Some of these concerns will be addressed through the Sustainable Hawaii Initiative, which calls for the doubling of local food production by 2030.

Innovative programs such as MA‘O Farm’s internships and apprenticeship programs provide students with job skills, cultural knowledge, and leadership training while the University of Hawaii West Oahu’s Bachelor of Applied Science in Sustainable Community Food Systems program extends the MA‘O pipeline.

Without local agriculture we are left with big box stores and chains and the term “dietary genocide” reverberates through the wake of this pandemic.

Shelter Our Most Vulnerable

If the number of tourists drops drastically there will undoubtedly be empty hotel rooms and smaller, independently-owned properties will be at risk of permanent closure. Private-public partnerships can and should be formed to create more housing for those facing houselessness, domestic violence, and in need of residential substance abuse treatment.

We are the ancestors of tomorrow.

Yes, some of this is already happening in Honolulu, but on a frustratingly slow pace and small scale. Maintenance of adequate space for survivors of domestic violence and individuals with substance use disorders is beneficial to the entire community and can save the lives of our most vulnerable neighbors.

The aftermath of the COVID-19 pandemic and the steady drumbeat of the Black Lives Matter movement are our moments of critical consciousness raising. The curtain has been pulled back and we will likely never again have on opportunity like this one to create real and lasting change in our community — at least not in our lifetimes.

We are the ancestors of tomorrow. How will the next seven generations look back and judge our efforts to reform our economy and the way our community treats its most vulnerable populations? What legacy of equity will we leave for them?

Community Voices aims to encourage broad discussion on many topics of community interest. It’s kind of a cross between Letters to the Editor and op-eds. This is your space to talk about important issues or interesting people who are making a difference in our world. Column lengths should be no more than 800 words and we need a photo of the author and a bio. We welcome video commentary and other multimedia formats. Send to news@civilbeat.org. The opinions and information expressed in Community Voices are solely those of the authors and not Civil Beat.

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About the Author

N. Kaui Baumhofer

N. Kaui Baumhofer is an assistant professor of Indigenous Health Sciences at the University of Hawaii West Oahu.

Latest Comments (0)

I'm just stunned...Higher quality tourist? Able to spend more per capita? Look read & listen Hawaii has been & always will be a cheap great destination. Japanese spend the most with Euro's & Aussies spending a great deal of money.No here's the listen part.... The only real reason people's come here now will be to buy real estate.... That's where your high income or investment potential is and will be, why do you think we've been seeing 23 million dollar condo's selling in the past 3 year's. Hawaii is no longer a "Bucket list or once in a lifetime" trip , unless your a broke backpacker. Every one can afford to come here.

Kavaloha · 3 years ago

Good analysis and good ideas - but the devil is in the details. Do we seek equality of opportunity - or equality of outcome? Equality in prosperity - or equality in poverty? Perhaps the most importantly, where will the money for all these nice things come from?

Chiquita · 3 years ago

Amen Sister, Amen!

Jray · 3 years ago

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