Stay home from work if you’re not well. Practice social distancing. Stock up on supplies. These are all guidelines for avoiding the coronavirus that causes COVID-19 – except that for millions of people across the country, such steps are challenging, or even impossible.
Certainly, the coronavirus is worrisome for everyone. But for a Native Hawaiian population who largely deals with poverty, houselessness, health inequities and other economic burdens, the outbreak can be especially brutal. Our kānaka often face economic hardships where they cannot necessarily afford to miss work, may have no steady health care provider, and no way to avoid crowded conditions. Our Native Hawaiian population disproportionately suffers with diseases that complicate infections, and have trouble accessing healthcare if they need it. Some may fear costly bills and delay seeking care, a wait that could cause medical complications. There are other issues we face as well, including increased risks coming from communal living and food insecurity, especially for kūpuna who are unable to get to retail stores, or who may find that there is nothing left after making the trek to these stores.
Easing the burden of a coronavirus outbreak for Native Hawaiians is no simple matter. The pandemic will exacerbate existing vulnerabilities and widen health disparities and economic gaps. We need bold systemic action by leadership to help us meet the challenges head-on with solutions that will center on those that may be the most impacted, including Native Hawaiians. Some people may have their work hours reduced because of temporary lay-offs and closures due to COVID-19, or some may be unable to work because of a diagnosis, quarantine or because they are caring for someone with the condition. While some workers may be eligible to receive a portion of wages or be able to take leave, we should explore halting evictions (as implemented by other cities), providing free and expanded healthcare, and expanding unemployment benefits for those who are unable to face the possible daunting economic, social and health costs associated with COVID-19.
We must also remember our prison population and others that are subject to our corrections system through pre-trial detention trials, cash bail, the sit-lie ban, and other policing that subjects people to the criminal justice system. Law enforcement should instead be focusing on crimes that cause physical harm to others. Social distancing cannot happen in prisons and the constant cycle of employees and entries may spread COVID-19.
On OHA’s end, for those beneficiaries facing immediate hardship, the purpose of the Kahiau Community Assistance Program (made possible through a grant from OHA) is to provide one-time emergency financial assistance of up to $2,000 to eligible Native Hawaiian beneficiaries facing hardship due to an unexpected crisis. This money can be used to fund mortgage payments, rent deposit or payment, or utility services.
Despite these challenges, as a Native Hawaiian community, we are working with one another to ensure our community has access to accurate information about the outbreak and about prevention and mitigation measures. In the meantime, the most effective way to prevent infections and save lives is by breaking the chains of transmission through more testing for COVID-19 and by practicing social distancing when possible. I encourage you all to engage in proper sanitation and medical care measures.
The lāhui can be the model for the integration of science, culture and healing, and mālama for one another. This is the time when we show the world how to rise. E mālama pono.