Federal agencies should actively reach out to Pacific Islander communities who have been disproportionately affected by the coronavirus pandemic in Hawaii and elsewhere, according to the Hawaii advisory group to the U.S. Civil Rights Commission.

The group recently released a report that explores how and why Pacific Islanders caught COVID-19 at a rate four times greater than any other racial or ethnic group in Hawaii and concluded that President Joe Biden’s administration and Hawaii’s political leaders could do a lot more to help address the disparities.

Amy Agbayani, one of 10 members of the advisory group, said Pacific Islanders in Hawaii face enormous barriers in getting equal access, equal opportunity and equal treatment in Hawaii.

“The COVID-19 problem just amplified the inequalities,” said Agbayani, a longtime Hawaii civil rights advocate. “The takeaway is that the government and private groups have a responsibility to work in partnership with these communities because these communities are here and deserve support.”

The Legal Clinic Dr Amy Agbayani PhD, Board Member.
Amy Agbayani is a board member at The Legal Clinic, a nonprofit law firm in Hawaii. Cory Lum/Civil Beat

The advisory group wants to meet with federal agencies and Gov. David Ige and Hawaii’s mayors as the pandemic continues and vaccination disparities remain. They’ve asked multiple agencies and Hawaii’s political leaders to review the report and provide responses.

Agbayani said it’s in Hawaii’s self-interest to make sure that Pacific Islanders are included in decision-making.

She said it can take a long time to get rid of discrimination especially when people don’t understand it. But the pandemic has forced Hawaii “to pay attention and take responsibility and not to blame the victim.”

The advisory group is made up of 10 appointed members but has no non-Hawaiian Pacific Islanders, Agbayani said. She hopes more will be added when openings are available.

The report highlighted Hawaii’s progress in data collection during the pandemic but also detailed many failings in outreach and communication. The analysis was based on input from Department of Health officials, community leaders and others who participated in virtual hearings.

“The state’s COVID-19 response to non-Hawaiian Pacific Islanders was severely insufficient especially those who require in language assistance because there was a lack of translated materials and interpreters,” the report said. “And even when government agencies requested and received translated materials from interpretation service organizations, many of those agencies failed to put translated materials on their website.”

There’s a lot that Biden could do on the federal level to help the situation, the report says. The U.S. Department of Homeland Security and Federal Emergency Management Agency should make COFA migrants eligible for disaster relief and funeral assistance, the advisory group recommended.

Currently the Biden administration’s funeral reimbursements for families who lost a loved one to COVID-19 exclude people who are living legally in the United States through the treaties known as the Compacts of Free Association.

The community, which includes citizens of the Marshall Islands, the Federated States of Micronesia and Palau, are legally present in the U.S. through national security agreements. But although many work and pay taxes, they are excluded from many social support programs.

Former President Donald Trump restored Medicaid eligibility for the community in December, and the civil rights advisory group now wants the Department of Health and Human Services to actively reach out to states with big Pacific Islander populations to ensure that people from Compact nations are aware they’re now eligible for Medicaid.

The advisory group also wants the U.S. Department of Health and Human Services to require standardized, detailed data collection about Pacific Islander communities.

The U.S. Department of the Interior and Office of Insular Affairs should “promptly engage with the COFA migrant community to address the current inadequacies affecting their health, safety, and welfare relative to the COVID-19 pandemic,” the report added.

The advisory group noted many ways in which state and county leaders could also help address the disparities.

The Ige administration should “provide better training and education about the specific needs of vulnerable communities, including but not limited to Pacific Islander communities, to persons who deliver medical and public services,” the report said.

Along with county mayors, Ige should “be more intentional about informing, supporting, and engaging cross-sector Micronesian leadership groups for emergency response,” the report said.

County mayors should identify offices or contacts responsible for addressing Pacific Islander health and civil rights issues, the report said.

The report highlighted how community leaders stepped up at the start of the pandemic when state and local responses lagged.

“As the state slowly developed comprehensive plans for mitigating the spread of COVID-19, Pacific Islander community leaders and organizations mobilized by forming various task forces to meet the immediate needs of families who were most heavily hit,” the report said. “These efforts were guided by strong cultural acknowledgement and resolute community care.”

Josie Howard, who leads the Pacific Islander service organization We Are Oceania, said she hopes that the report leads to real change.

“One thing is to express and write the need down, but if no changes, then it’s useless,” she said.

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