Over the last several weeks, Hawaiʻi’s COVID-19 numbers have been climbing due to the highly infectious Delta strain of the virus. Where those numbers go from here will depend upon a number of factors, the most significant of which will be whether more in our community are vaccinated against this virus.
Federally approved vaccines are now available which substantially reduce the risk of becoming infected and the likelihood of a serious infection or even death if one contracts COVID-19.
Epidemiologists have been tracking disease trends among various populations and have found that Native Hawaiians and Pacific Islander communities are particularly at-risk if they contract the disease. These same statistics also indicate that a substantial number in these communities are not vaccinated.
Several weeks ago, Hawaiian leaders were called together to address this situation by Sen. Jarrett Keoho- kalole after he sent out a kāhea that the west side of Oʻahu, a community where many Hawaiians reside, was literally “on fire” after he reviewed recent COVID-19 reports of high rates of infection coinciding with low vaccination rates.
The collective intention of those who appeared and answered his call was to demonstrate that we care about Hawaiians’ health and wellbeing, to give Hawaiians accurate information about these vaccinations, and to make these vaccinations more readily available to them.
While I made a personal choice to become vaccinated so that my chances of contracting the virus, of having a serious outcome, or of transmitting this virus to my moʻopuna, friends, and loved ones is lessened, my purpose in writing this column is to share what we were reminded of when we gathered together about what our Aliʻi thought and how they responded when facing epidemics and pandemics in their lifetimes.
Our Aliʻi faced infectious diseases such as typhoid fever, influenza, measles, whooping cough, smallpox, Hansen’s disease, and bubonic plague, and, over the years, established public health measures to ensure the survival of Hawaiians. In spite of their efforts, many Hawaiians succumed to these foreign diseases.
Yet our Aliʻi persevered in doing what they could to keep their citizens healthy. Kamehameha III established a Board of Health in 1850, and King Kamehameha IV and Queen Emma established the Queen’s Hospital in 1859. In 1881, facing a severe smallpox outbreak, Queen Liliʻuokalani issued a quarantine and a restriction on travel which saved many lives.
In our gathering at the statue of Queen Liliʻuokalani, Sen. Keohokalole spoke of our collective past and of our Queen’s decision to put the survival of her people first.
In an especially poignant moment, Sen. Keohokalole reminded us that in 1893 Queen Liliʻuokalani chose to surrender to the United States rather than risk the lives of Hawaiians to resist the overthrow of the Kingdom of Hawaiʻi. Sen. Keohokalole recalled for us that in 1848 there were no recorded live Hawaiian births, and that Queen Liliʻuokalani’s decision to pursue diplomacy rather than war on that fateful day of Jan. 17, 1893, could well have been because, in her mind, too many Hawaiians had already perished, and that, above all else, her beloved Hawaiian people must survive.
That spirit and collective memory remain with us today, where we Hawaiians still celebrate and commemorate our babies’ survival of their first year of life with a traditional baby lūʻau.
That love, concern, and aloha for one another, and for our lāhui, is the essence of who we are, and what we aspire to become.
Mālama kekahi i kekahi. May we recall the example of our Aliʻi, and commit ourselves to care for one another.