Neal Milner: We're All To Blame For Trusting The Department Of Health - Honolulu Civil Beat

About the Author

Neal Milner

Neal Milner is a former political science professor at the University of Hawaii where he taught for 40 years. He is a political analyst for KITV and is a regular contributor to Hawaii Public Radio's "The Conversation." His most recent book is The Gift of Underpants. Opinions are the author's own and do not necessarily reflect Civil Beat's views.

The state’s COVID-19 contact tracing debacle is not an exception. It’s the rule. Business as usual, an exaggerated case of a government screw up, yet a typical one.

Let me make it clear. I think State Epidemiologist Sarah Park and Health Director Bruce Anderson should lose their jobs. So should Gov. David Ige though that’s more complicated.

As a “team” they have been so awful that I don’t even want to talk about it. Besides, by now many others have already done so. The critiques and anger are just gonna keep on coming.

As bad as that group has been, however, the problem goes well beyond them.

The Legislature, the media and the public are also complicit in the Ige administration’s frighteningly dunderheaded, dishonest contact tracing pseudo plan.

Department of Health Director, Dr. Bruce Anderson gestures during press conference on COVID-19 at the Capitol.
Citizens, the media, and lawmakers should all be doing more to hold the Department of Health, including Health Director Bruce Anderson, accountable for the state’s pandemic response. Cory Lum/Civil Beat/2020

We all were gullible, assuming that because COVID-19 was so serious, the government would break its usual pattern.

Instead of being on our toes, which is the proper role of citizens in a democracy, we were essentially on our okoles.

Why did we assume things would be different this time?

Lack Of Transparency

Let’s first state some general rules that should have kept us wary about the vague, ever changing but constantly rosy — and more than a little patronizing — way that our state administration has handled this.

Here are three rules that should have guided everyone in Hawaii but did not because we fell into our typical pattern of being cynical about government yet acting as if that historically creaky, opaque mechanism was going to do better this time.

Rule 1: Evasiveness, lack of transparency, and ineptitude is an endemic a part of state government. It is institutionalized in the culture of state government, not something that suddenly appears out of the blue.

Rule 2: The Department of Health is notoriously and historically good at all those things mentioned in Rule 1. DOH has been so for years, involving all sorts of issues.

Rule 3: Therefore, we — everyone involved, from the Legislature to the media and the public — should have approached Hawaii’s handling of COVID-19 with the following guides at the forefront: trust but verify. Or even better: distrust, then verify.

These ground rules should have been the basis of conventional wisdom about Hawaii’s government. Instead, we fell into the usual patterns of conventional non-wisdom.

HAWAII STATE CAPITOL CLOSED sign near the Rotunda elevators during COVID-19 pandemic. June 22, 2020
Lawmakers deserve kudos for their surprise visit to the Department of Health, but should have been doing more to oversee the DOH from the beginning. Cory Lum/Civil Beat/2020

Despite cynicism and moaning about state government’s ineptitude, because of the way politics as usual operates here we believed the bullshit.

And more importantly, we took Ige, Anderson, and Park at their word — even though testing their assertions by finding out just exactly what was going on with contact tracing was not hard to do.

You think something is suspicious? Well, just go find out what’s really going on. Not in this state.

Nothing like that happened until two things took place. Both were worthy and under the circumstances necessary. And both show how crazily convoluted the process of getting information is around here.

First, members of the Legislature paid a surprise visit to a dimly lit bunker DOH called its contact tracing headquarters. Second, a whistleblower from DOH came forward with news of the real deal about tracing.

As I say, worthy endeavors. But come on. It says volumes that the only way the Legislature could get this information was to act like an HPD vice squad raiding an illegal gambling den.

Whatever happened to legislative oversight? Good question. Here’s my answer. Oversight in Hawaii does not work very well, partly because so many state officials have learned how to blunt it. See rules No. 1 and 2 above or read any state auditor’s report.

Better late than never, but the representatives of the people have not exactly covered themselves with glory.

Capitol looking Mauka showing open floor plan and architectural elements.
The Legislature has been too deferential to the Department of Health in the past. Cory Lum/Civil Beat

In fact over the years, the Legislature has been way too patient and deferential with the goings-on of the Department of Health, from the Zika virus to nursing homes and medical marijuana implementation.

To make it clear, I applaud the Legislature for their raid. They deserve cool jackets like the ones liquor commissioners get to wear when they swoop in on a badly behaving bar.

And it tells you all you need to know about the governor’s otherworldliness when he criticized those same legislative raiders for showing bad manners by coming in without notice and surprising the workers.

Governor, that’s like yelling at firefighters who show up at your blazing house for not wiping their boots before they crossed the threshold.

The virologist who blew the whistle deserves all the kudos we can give her, though I wish the information she offered would have come out sooner.

As courageous and important as her actions were, though, what she reported did not take a trained man or woman of science to discover.

I don’t know of anyone who didn’t suspect that the information the state was dishing out was shibai. And yet it took forever to move out of this grumbling stage.

So how wacky is it that we had to rely on a Magnificent Seven-like posse of legislators and a whistleblower to find out that the contact tracing operation was a Potemkin village constructed by the head of DOH and the state epidemiologist?

Holding Government Accountable

Speaking of eyes, ears, and gumshoe, that brings me to the media, which is partly complicit and partly — like the rest of us — a victim of secrecy and information hoarding.

We are talking about investigative journalism 101 here.

The public got lots of stories about disagreements over how many tracers we needed and about confusion over how many Hawaii actually has.

Finding out the answer in a definitive way? Who’s doing it where and how well? Finding sources? They were within Biki distance.

Yes, the media should have been more persistent, but this is hardly the media’s fault. Information is extraordinarily hard to come by here, partly because of the non-transparency strategies that are so much a part of the government but, more significantly, because folks are afraid to speak out.

In Hawaii whistleblowers are as rare as monk seals and even more of an endangered species.

Department of Health Epidemiologist, Dr. Jessica Smith. August 14, 2020
Jennifer Smith, a Department of Health virologist and case investigator, blew the whistle on the state’s inadequate contact tracing. Cory Lum/Civil Beat/2020

A brief word about Lt. Gov. Josh Green. I admire his knowledge and his ability to express himself in ways that don’t make you want to turn off the television. But it’s interesting, isn’t it, that this never led to anything like the Legislature and whistleblower’s full assault on the contact tracing carnival of lies.

As for the rest of us citizens: sure, we got angry as once again state government turned out to be as disastrous as we joke that it is. Nightmares come true. Shades of TMT and North Korean missiles.

And yet then we behaved as if this time would be different. We were further lulled into this tic of false optimism by the state’s initially low case count.

And then we made the leap of faith that the governor and the DOH heavies actually had a workable plan in case — and here’s an odd notion — things changed for the worse.

Like, oh, for example, right now.

Let me say it again: all of us should have approached the issue by keeping in mind that given the players — and especially given the state’s political history and our responsibilities as citizens — we all should have been much more skeptical from day one.

How hard is that? Well, on the evidence harder than it appears.

Because for all our carping, we collectively are creatures of political habit, so used to having this low bar that we didn’t take effective action.

Democracy requires some trust in government. But most of all it requires holding government accountable.

In Hawaii trust is low, but accountability is even lower.

Some democracy.

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About the Author

Neal Milner

Neal Milner is a former political science professor at the University of Hawaii where he taught for 40 years. He is a political analyst for KITV and is a regular contributor to Hawaii Public Radio's "The Conversation." His most recent book is The Gift of Underpants. Opinions are the author's own and do not necessarily reflect Civil Beat's views.

Latest Comments (0)

It will be easy for readers to say "yeah, go get 'em, Milner." We have a history of distrust of state government. We've gotten very cranky.But with Covid, please remember: the Health Department and everyone else in government is flying blind on controlling a very serious virus about which we know very little. That's why EVERY nation had an epidemic. There's no "right way" to handle it yet. Contact tracing becomes worthless as soon as you have triple digit infections. The DOH wasn't lying to lawmakers. It just did not have answers. The virus has so far defeated our best and brightest, and it's the same everywhere. So we need some patience rather than Milner's blanket critique. We also should consider blocking all air travel to Hawaii and another serious lockdown. And all the research we can get our hands on, including the exciting new nasal-infection findings by Johns Hopkins today (see CBS Market Watch).

bobjones · 1 year ago

I do not believe for one second that Dr. Park or Dr. Anderson, or even the Governor do not care. State government is an out-of-date, lumbering system that needs major overhaul, but where to start? And this issue is not the result of just a few people. And it's not just Hawaii. It's not like the public has a consensus on how to respond. Trying to satisfy one group makes another start to howl. Would be so nice to have a magic bullet. 

fiona · 1 year ago

Dr Anderson at today’s presser made a point that contact tracing is ineffective when number of infections is high; I guess tracers are cold calling, interviewing, quarantining and testing too many people to the point they’re not producing results - if infections are high, lockdown becomes the only solution.A bit of a straw man argument on my part but it seems to me that a lot of people believe that the recent surge in infections is caused by not enough tracers

Frank_Rizzo · 1 year ago

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