By Jonathan K. Osorio, Ph.D.
Resistance to vaccination seems incomprehensible to so many people and the prevailing accusation is that those who oppose vaccination are ignorant, foolish, selfish, even dangerous.
It breaks my heart that so many Kānaka Maoli are hesitant to seek the vaccine, but I do understand. We have enough examples in our public health history to be suspicious of public health mandates supposedly reinforced by scientific facts.
Government in Hawaiʻi, beginning with the Kingdom, sought to contain leprosy by sending the afflicted – mostly Hawaiians and Chinese – to Kalawao and Kalaupapa on Molokaʻi, where many “patients” died separated from family and friends. The practice was so unpopular that several legislatures in the 1870s faced bills introduced by Kanaka Maoli representatives to end the segregation, calling the Molokaʻi settlement “Ka Lua Kupapaʻu,” a hole of corpses.
In 1900, 10,000 residents of Chinatown were quarantined within the Honolulu community to prevent the spread of bubonic plague – even though it was well-known that the vector of the disease was rats and fleas. People’s homes were invaded, their belongings confiscated and burned, and a controlled burn of some dwellings led to a massive fire that destroyed blocks of Chinatown leaving 4,000 people homeless.
That public health solution was based less on science and more on racist notions about Chinese living in poorly constructed residences.
In the second decade of the 20th century, public health notices questioned the condition and safety of the Waikīkī estuary and its network of thriving taro gardens and inland fishponds. Waikīkī was identified as a swamp capable of harboring malaria-hosting mosquitos, and these bogus claims were the pretext for the Waikīkī Reclamation Act in 1920 that required all of those gardens and fishponds to be land-filled, ending one of the most productive agricultural ahupuaʻa in Hawaiʻi and beginning the modern history of evicting Hawaiian communities in favor of urbanization.
So, our people in Hawaiʻi have reason to be suspicious of public health pronouncements even when they are backed by science, and it might be a good idea if those of us who accept the necessity of vaccination take a step back from condemning those around us who are skeptical.
Nevertheless, I send this message to those in our lāhui who have no regard for the government’s advice. Please consider the vaccine. We have lost too many of our people, hundreds of thousands of our ancestors, swept up by smallpox, measles, whooping cough, syphilis, tuberculosis, leprosy, year after year, decade after decade. More than a century of dying.
Must more of us die just because we have a well-founded resentment for government officials and for policies that claim to be based on knowledgable practices and scientific evidence, but have actually been used to dispossess and criminalize us?
The pandemic is real, and the vaccine has clearly helped to limit fatalities. There may, indeed, be side effects unknown at this time, but the effect of not taking the vaccine is increasingly well-known.
The lāhui needs us to survive. Every one of our ancestors who died without knowing children or grandchildren would have wanted us to persist, to live and bring life to more generations, to reclaim our places on the land.
It is a lot harder to sympathize with those who consider mask-wearing a sign of weakness or a surrender of your individual rights. That’s much more like an aggressive assertion that you can take chances with other people’s lives rather than endure the smallest inconvenience – and where is the self-respect in that? When have we Kānaka Maoli ever behaved like that?
This is not the state or an expert asking you to protect yourself and your family. This is your cousin, your brother, your nephew, your relative from more than a hundred generations, loving you and wanting your family and ours to hoʻomau.
Please think of the future as well as the past. We who were supposed to have disappeared a hundred years ago, have so much to live for.
This essay was first published on Aug. 25, 2021, under the title Native Hawaiians Should Consider Vaccines, Set Aside Contempt For Wearing Masks, and is reprinted with permission from Civil Beat.
Jonathan Kamakawiwoʻole Osorio is a scholar of 19th century political and social history in Hawaiʻi. He is a professor at the Kamakakūokalani Center for Hawaiian Studies and dean of the Hawaiʻinuiākea School of Hawaiian Knowledge.