As the COVID-19 pandemic rages on in Hawaiʻi, concern is growing for the most respected – and most vulnerable – portion of the Hawaiian population: our kūpuna.
With roughly 3,000 new infections in Hawaiʻi during the first three weeks of August, more than all the previous cases seen from March to July, Governor David Ige announced renewed restrictions for residents on August 18 regarding social gatherings, mask wearing and social distancing.
The new guidelines, just short of a full lock down, were imposed for at least 28 days.
And Hawaiian community health organizations have taken note.
“Between July 1 and July 24, the infection rate among Hawaiians doubled,” said Kim Kuʻulei Birnie, communications coordinator for Papa Ola Lōkahi. “And the greatest number of hospitalizations and deaths (overall) are among those 60 and older.”
Authorized by the Native Hawaiian Health Care Improvement Act and established in 1998, Papa Ola Lōkahi’s mission is to improve the health status and wellbeing of Native Hawaiians and others by advocating, initiating and maintaining culturally appropriate strategic actions aimed at improving the physical, mental and spiritual health of Native Hawaiians.
As of August 14, Hawaiians represented 25% of the population and 14% of all cases.
Birnie said that Papa Ola Lōkahi is doing all it can to help fight the pandemic, including partnering with more than 30 organizations across the state, offering nearly $100,000 in sponsorships for programs supporting everyone from keiki to kūpuna, and hosting several educational webinar series.
“We are doing our normal work and on top of that we’re doing health prevention and community education, we’re tracking data and statistics and weaving those into our messaging, and we are helping to build capacity for community health workers to become contact tracers,” she said.
Birnie agrees with state Health Director Bruce Anderson, who said the recent surge in Hawaiʻi cases is being caused by people who are gathering in large groups, and not abiding by mask wearing and social distancing mandates.
“We shouldn’t focus solely on ethnicity, because it’s really about behaviors. It’s about the environment,” Birnie said. “Hawaiians live in close quarters. Hawaiians go to the beach and have gatherings and funerals and baby lāʻau – as do other groups. Many of those behaviors can be attributed to other communities as well.”
Kailua resident Jerry Walker, 77, is a retired health administrator, author and respected lua practitioner. He said that although they miss visiting family and friends and attending special events, his ʻohana has limited their movement, only traveling for food and medical needs.
And he’s asking everyone to follow the restrictions as well.
“The Hawaiians have a saying: ‘make ola’ – live or die. So my message is to choose life and follow the recommended guidelines and emergency orders. We’re washing our hands when necessary, maintaining social distancing and staying away from crowds of any size,” he said.
“Those who are not following masking rules, social distancing and avoiding large crowds are increasing their chances of either getting infected or infecting others. I’m most concerned about multi-generational families who don’t have any choice but to live together.”
Malina Kaulukukui, 77, also lives in Kailua. She is a retired social worker, a kumu hula and a hoʻoponopono practitioner.
She said those who have been blessed by growing up in Hawaiʻi have been surrounded by the Hawaiian values of pilina (connection), kōkua aku/kōkua mai (reciprocity), kuleana and aloha.
“On an intuitive level, we tend to act in ways that honor the needs of others, particularly our elders. We show kuleana in ways that will maximize the health of our communities over the long-term, as well as assuring the lineage of our children and grandchildren,” she said.
“This is a time to collectively embrace actions and behaviors that we know can keep each other safe and flatten the infection curve. What I would also say to those who won’t wear masks or social distance, and who may also gather in larger-than-recommended groups, is to remember the teachings of your kūpuna and behave with a kuleana that assures the safety of others, even though you are restless and hungry for social contact with your peers.
“To those who have relocated to Hawaiʻi and have been nurtured by its people and the cultural values of this special place, I would ask that you remember what has kept you here. Honor us by helping to keep us safe. Consistently wear a mask and consistently social distance.”
Birnie was optimistic that Hawaiʻi will see its way through the pandemic.
“We have our cultural values to mālama our keiki and kūpuna. We have many traditional practices and ʻike kūpuna that when we bring them forward, can help to influence the way we behave in reaction to the spread of the disease,” she said.
“We know that when we had epidemics in the 19th and early 20th centuries, those diseases hit our shores and we were devastated. We have that history and we’re not ignorant of it. It’s just a matter of weaving that history and those cultural values into our current messaging to keep our families and communities safe.”