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Native Hawaiian leaders band together to urge vaccinations

The record surge of COVID-19 has taken a particularly large toll on the Native Hawaiian community.

Native Hawaiians constitute only 21% of Hawaii’s population, but represent almost 32% of all COVID-19 cases statewide.

The Office of Hawaiian Affairs said earlier this month its “best estimates indicate that the vaccination rate among the Native Hawaiian community may be as low as 35%.” That’s compared to the state average vaccination rate of 62%.

Native Hawaiian community leaders held a press conference Thursday by the statue of Queen Lili‘uokalani at the state capitol in Honolulu, urging Hawaiians to protect themselves and their community from the novel coronavirus.

“We cannot continue to allow Hawaiians to be the group with the low vaccination rates and the high case counts, with severe illness, with preventable death and trauma in our lahui,” said Mehanaokala Hind, senior vice president of community programs at the Council for Native Hawaiian Advancement. “We have kuleana to protect our ohana, to keep them safe from harm.

“There are multiple tools we can turn to. And it is up to us to choose to use them: masks, distancing, staying home, testing, the vaccines.”

Diane Paloma, CEO of Lunalilo Home — a skilled nursing home in Honolulu established by the will of King William Lunalilo — said her facility is “taking no chances … with this new Delta variant.”

“Our organization, I’m proud to say, is 100% vaccinated in terms of staff, and 100% vaccinated for our kupuna,” Paloma said. “… The consequences of this pandemic are devastating — and we must take action now to protect our future. It is my sincere hope that the generations that come long after us know that we did everything possible to remain standing as a lahui.”

Kalehua Krug, principal at Ka Waihona O Ka Na‘auao Public Charter School in Nanakuli, Oahu, said the Native Hawaiian community is “at a crossroads.”

“One road is guided by our negative perspective and experiences and the distrust of science and scientists, and government and big pharmaceutical companies. The other road is guided by health care and mainstream medical information,” Krug said.

Krug said despite “valid concerns” of those who disagree, he chooses science “because our people were innovative and used many of the principles of science to build our indigenous world.”

“We encourage our students to embrace education as important,” he said. “We have guided them to (strive) and become doctors, nurses, lawyers and such, if they choose. And in this context, after all of our encouragement and all of their hard work to get there, we seemingly have turned our backs on our Native Hawaiian doctors.

“Please find them in your communities and raise them up as your leaders. Let their knowledge and experience guide us in troubled times. … They are our modern-day healers, and sometimes you need foreign medicines to heal foreign illnesses.”

Gerard Akana, a Native Hawaiian physician and vice president of Native Hawaiian Affairs and Clinical Support for the Queen’s Health Systems, said the Delta variant surge “is for real.”

Akana told the story of a patient he described as “a Hawaiian woman in her 60s, hard worker, does everything for everybody.”

“She’s the only one in her family to get COVID. Sadly, she passes away,” he said. “And it’s only after that her two daughters … full of sadness, devastation and guilt … said that they would get vaccinated.”

State Senate Health Committee Chairman Jarrett Keohokalole, who’s also co-chairman of the Native Hawaiian Legislative Caucus, compared the COVID pandemic to Queen Lili‘uokalani’s life and reign.

“During the queen’s lifetime, the Native Hawaiian population went from 140,000 individuals at the time of her birth in 1838, to 40,000 individuals at the time of her death in 1917 — a 70% drop,” Keohokalole said. “So, I thought about that and what kind of impact that had on her life and what it would have been like to live through a time when 70% of her community vanished, almost all due to diseases that today are curable — smallpox, measles, whooping cough, influenza. I think about how that impacted her decisions and the decisions of all of our alii, to have seen so much suffering and death and to have taken many of the measures that are being taken today to address the spread of COVID-19 in our community now.

“You know, I also think about why the queen yielded peacefully to the United States of America during the overthrow and asked her people not to take up arms. And it has to be because of this. Because they did not have lives to spare then. And we don’t have lives to spare now.”

Keohokalole said Hawaii’s tradition of a baby luau to celebrate a child’s first birthday came about “in part, because dueling epidemics in the 1840s led to a situation in 1848 where there were no recorded births in the Hawaiian Kingdom where the baby survived.”

“This is our legacy,” he noted. “And our alii and our kupuna would not want history to repeat itself. They lost too much for that to happen.”

Email John Burnett at jburnett@hawaiitribune-herald.com.
Source: Hawaii Tribune Herald

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