Hawaii leaders need to immediately work with and provide resources to Pacific Islander community leaders who are trying to stop the coronavirus from spreading in their communities, experts say.
A new article by University of Hawaii researchers and a community health center director published by the East-West Center outlines a series of recommendations to address the growing COVID-19 infection rates affecting Pacific Islanders in Hawaii.
Non-Hawaiian Pacific Islanders make up 31% of all coronavirus cases in the state, according to the latest available data. The community, which is made up of Indigenous peoples from across Oceania, is only about 4% of Hawaii’s population. That’s a rate 10 times higher than the state infection rate, and their rates are growing faster than other communities, researchers found.
“The state response must broaden immediately to engage Pacific Island communities as equal partners, provide for truly collective and just approaches to health care and support needs, and channel resources to community organizations and stakeholder groups in a way that allows them to take leadership in COVID prevention and care,” researchers wrote.
The authors include DeWolfe Miller, a professor emeritus at the University of Hawaii in infectious disease epidemiology; Tim Brown, a senior research fellow at the East-West Center; and David Derauf, a physician and head of Kokua Kalihi Valley Comprehensive Family Services.
They’re calling for more resources for Pacific Islander leaders; better support for families who are sick and in isolation and better contact tracing and investigations.
“The State of Hawaii’s COVID-19 response to date has been primarily a health sector response, directed and largely run by the Department of Health,” they wrote. “As such, given DOH staffing limitations and lack of familiarity with Pacific Islander communities, it has failed to appropriately address their needs. The result has been volatile COVID-19 growth.”
Researchers say the systemic factors that led to higher rates among non-Hawaiian Pacific Islanders are obvious — including but not limited to poverty, lack of health insurance, low English literacy and other concerns — and the state should acknowledge that.
“Messaging around solutions for the epidemic needs to broaden beyond individual behaviors to include discussion of systemic responses to broader cultural and social support needs,” they wrote.
State leaders should try to better communicate with Pacific Islander communities, in their language and in partnership with them, and try to avoid exacerbating discrimination, the authors said.
They recommend “effective, transparent, and sustained engagement of Pacific Islander leaders as full partners, including consulates, churches, traditional leaders, nonprofits, and other groups representing Pacific Islanders.”
“While some good work has been done in this area, so far it has been too little and too late to disastrous effect,” they said.
Pacific Islander service providers and community leaders have for months been scrambling to help their sick community members and help get the word out about rapidly changing state and local guidelines about the virus. Many have felt abandoned by the state and wondered why the Department of Health didn’t seek their help with contact tracing.
“I think they could have reached out to the community just in case this happens. We could have been ready to offer our help,” Jendrikdrik Paul, who leads the Marshallese Community Organization, told Civil Beat last week.