Nearly two dozen prominent members of Hawaii’s Indigenous community called upon their fellow Native Hawaiians to get vaccinated against Covid-19 or stay safe by masking, social distancing and staying home.

Twenty-three leaders met at the statue of Queen Liliuokalani at the State Capitol Thursday in a show of solidarity against the virus and its effect on their community.

“The consequences of this pandemic are devastating and we must take action now to protect our future,” Diane Paloma, chief executive officer of The King Lunalilo Trust and Home, said at the press conference.

Native Hawaiians are disproportionately unvaccinated against the coronavirus in Hawaii at a time when coronavirus cases are surging. On Thursday, the state reported 831 new cases and 426 people hospitalized for the virus, another single-day record of Covid hospitalizations.

Diane Paloma, PhD.Chief Executive Officer for the King Lunalilo Trust and Home, speaks during a press conference held at the state capitol in Honolulu, Thursday, August 26, 2021. Hawaiian community leaders came together to urge native Hawaiians to take action in protecting themselves and others against COVID-19. (Ronen Zilberman photo Civil Beat)
Diane Paloma, head of The King Lunalilo Trust and Home, joins nearly two dozen other Native Hawaiian leaders at a press conference at the state Capitol in Honolulu to urge the community to get vaccinated. Ronen Zilberman/Civil Beat/2021

For more than a year, state data showed that Native Hawaiians experienced disproportionately low, below average Covid rates. Racial and ethnic disparities have instead negatively affected other Pacific Islanders and Filipinos.

But in July, the community began to suffer an uptick in cases. Today, Native Hawaiians make up 21% of the population and 23% of all Covid cases in Hawaii since the pandemic started.

Many fear that’ll get progressively worse due to recent trends. Since the delta variant became the dominant coronavirus strain in July, Native Hawaiians have been as much as 27% of newly reported coronavirus cases.

“This current Covid-19 delta surge is us,” said Hawaii Rep. Jarrett Keohokalole at the press conference.

U.S. Rep. Kai Kahele, who also attended Thursday’s press conference, said the bipartisan group of Hawaiian leaders joined together to show that staying safe from Covid is one thing they agree on and want others to do.

Kahele believes misinformation, conspiracy theories and distrust of government are discouraging many of his fellow Hawaiians from getting the life-saving shot.

“We are fearful and lost. We hesitate,” said Kalehua Krug, principal of Ka Waihona O Ka Naʻauaʻo public charter school. “For some, that inaction has a grave outcome.”

Gerard Akaka, a physician from The Queen’s Medical Center, described a husband who died from Covid after a trip to Disney World; a grandmother also killed by the virus; the wailing of a wife whose husband was in the intensive care unit. All were Hawaiian and unvaccinated.

“The surge is for real,” Akaka said. “Get vaccinated. Stay home.”

Distrust In Government

Every leader who spoke Thursday drew upon Hawaiian history and the epidemics that decimated their people as they urged their community to stop the virus’ spread.

“Our kupuna would take this seriously if they were here because of what they went through,” said Keohokalole.

“Sometimes you need foreign medicines to heal foreign illnesses,” said Krug.

Over the past week, many others have started to vocalize their support for vaccination by changing their Facebook profiles to include a graphic that reads: “I have a healthy distrust of authority, and I’m vaccinated.” Local singer and activist Starr Kalahiki was one of those people.

She believes that the lack of trust in government is a key part of why more Hawaiians aren’t getting the Covid shot and that the issue is connected with unresolved conflict on Mauna Kea. The construction of the Thirty Meter Telescope on the sacred mountain reignited the fire of distrust in the U.S. government that stems from the overthrow of the Hawaiian monarchy, she said.

Portrait of Starr Kalihiki with Iolani Palace in the background.
Starr Kalihiki reclaims her space in front of Iolani Palace — a place she said brings up contrasting emotions of betrayal and strength. Cory Lum/Civil Beat/2021

She recalled embracing Gov. David Ige during his first visit to the Mauna.

“I remember feeling so much disdain for him until I realized that’s just going to drain you empty,” she said. Kalahiki explained that she felt proud of herself for looking past her anger and finding compassion.

I don’t think it’s easy to hold any space like that in this time when money is in charge of so much.” — Starr Kalahiki

Now she wants other Hawaiians who might feel similarly about the state to put their health first, by actively vocalizing her support for vaccination on social media and offering prayer to her community. As an only child without children of her own, she said her choice to get the vaccine was mainly for her parents and community.

“If Hawaiians are dying, the freaking colonizer wins,” she said. “Don’t die!”

She’s worried too many people are deciding against vaccination because of misinformation. More people need to listen to the truth that is in their cells — their ’oia’i’o — when deciding how best to protect themselves and their loved ones, she said.

“It’s time to malama — look inward and take responsibility for those things first and foremost.”

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