Thinking of visiting Hawai‘i right now? The reasons not to have epidemic proportions

RDK Herman
RDK Herman

Executive director, Pacific Worlds Institute

Spread Aloha not COVID

“Where is your aloha spirit?” ask many recent visitors to the Hawaiian Islands whose arrivals, since the Coronavirus outbreak, have been received with less than friendliness by local people.  The tourism industry has for decades billed these islands as the Land of Aloha, where smiling brown people will serve your expensive meal, clean your hotel room, and make you feel more than welcome. It is a theme that has played directly into the mainstream American sense of entitlement: it’s a free country, I have a right to go anywhere I please, and you should thank me for the dollars I am putting into your economy.

For many of Hawai‘i’s residents—descended either from Native Hawaiians or from Asians who came to work the sugar and pineapple plantations—those days are over for now, and maybe forever.  While some people in the continental U.S. accuse mask mandates of violating their rights and wave the banner of individual freedom, the majority of Hawai‘i’s residents have taken a very different approach: protect each other, protect the elders. At all costs.

While the arrival of vaccines for the coronavirus shines a light at the end of the pandemic tunnel, we are still far from there.  Hospitals are overwhelmed as lax practices have let the virus flourish, yet despite warnings against travel, airlines are experiencing a peak and people with coronavirus are still getting on planes.

Mo‘o hihia is the Hawaiian term for intergenerational trauma.  From when Captain James Cook first stepped ashore in 1778 until now, these islands have been washed over by waves of epidemics—and not just diseases that affect humans directly.  As I wrote in this previous article, introduced diseases wreaked havoc from that first documented visit of a Westerner to these shores.  But to truly understand how local people here feel, it is important for visitors to know that there have been at least four types of epidemics that have transformed these islands from the paradise that once was, to the make-believe paradise that visitors experience.

These islands were home to perhaps 700,000 Native peoples when Westerners arrived.  Over 2000 miles of ocean from the next nearest land, these people were healthy and completely self-sufficient, with agricultural systems that were highly praised by early Western explorers.  One who visited with captains Portlock and Dixon in the late 1780s, wrote under the initials CL that Hawai‘i island “has a beautiful appearance, seeming to be formed in distinct plantations, and all in the highest state of cultivation.  Trees of everlasting verdure decorate the higher grounds, and limpid streams meander through the soil, increasing its fertility, and adding to the beauty of the enchanting scene.”

But already at that point, infectious diseases introduced by visiting Westerners had begun a cataclysmic transformation of the islands that would destroy every aspect of the paradise that CL saw.  And not just of the human population.  The destruction wrought had truly “epidemic proportions.”  Waves of epidemics—diseases, pests, new plants and crops, and new people—destroyed the carefully balanced paradise that once was, and in the end has replaced much of it with a phony paradise for visitors, and a brutal reality for Native Hawaiians and the descendants of plantation workers.  The coronavirus pandemic has brought this situation into stark relief.  There is a circle of epidemics—not just of diseases—that have brought the islands to this state.  All who come here should know this.

Diseases:

Non-Hawaiian visitors to the islands have brought deadly epidemics here since Captain Cook.  His men passed on “the venereals” (the actual disease has not been definitively identified) on their first visit, and when they returned six months later, the disease had spread throughout the archipelago.  When French explorer La Pérouse arrived in the 1786, he said of Hawaiian women that “their dress permitted us to observe, in most of them, traces of the ravages occasioned by the venereal disease.” Not an outright killer for the most part, the disease could render the people infertile, and triggered the steep downward decline of the Hawaiian population.

Arriving here more than a thousand years ago after millennia of migration out of Southeast Asia, the Hawaiian people lived in isolation from other people, and—like the native peoples of the Americas—never experienced the diseases that had affected the Old World. This made them “virgin populations” who had not, through exposure, developed resilience or immunities.  They died by the droves.  New England missionary Levi Chamberlain from Dover, Vermont, wrote in 1829 that:

There have been two seasons of destructive sickness, both within the period of thirty years, by which, according to the account of the natives, more than one half of the population of the island was swept away. The united testimony of all of whom I have ever made any inquiry respecting the sickness, has been that, ‘Greater was the number of the dead, than of the living.’

As I wrote in this article, the missionaries and their white cohort blamed the Hawaiians themselves, saying such things as “The lower classes are a mass of corruption. Words cannot express the depths of vice and degradation to which they have been sunk from time immemorial. Their very blood is corrupted and the springs of life tainted with disease, by which a premature old age and untimely death ensues.”

The germs kept coming, and the epidemics kept raging: cholera (1804), influenza (1820s), mumps (1839), measles and whooping cough (1848-9) and smallpox (1853). These led King Kamehameha V, in 1869, to establish a quarantine station on a small island off Honolulu.  Leprosy came in the late 1800s. 

Don’t like quarantine?  How about quarantine for life?  Native Hawaiians and other non-whites who contracted the disease were isolated on the remote Makanalua peninsula, walled off by cliffs on the back side of Moloka‘i.  A guard was posted atop the cliff with orders to shoot on sight anyone trying to escape. But infected whites were allowed to travel back to their families on the continent. 

The good news: Kalawao county, which includes that peninsula plus neighboring valleys, is right now the only county in the entire United States that has no COVID-19 cases.

Now travelers risk bringing COVID-19 here so they can have a vacation.

Pests:

The islands truly were a paradise: no mosquitos, no stinging insects, and few to no poisonous or thorny plants.  Mosquitos arrived in 1826, and when the avian pox and avian malaria arrived in the late 1800s and early 1900s, the mosquitos spread these diseases to the endemic native bird populations.  Now most native birds are extinct below 2000 feet elevation.  As more and more alien insects arrived, the native insect life was devastated.  The Rosy Wolf Snail, introduced in 1955 to attack the 1936-introduced Giant African snails, devastated the wide array of endemic Hawaiian land snails.  And the list goes on and on and on and on.  As the state’s Department of Land and Natural Resources points out, while comprising less than 1% of the USA’s land mass, Hawai‘i accounts for 44% of the entire U.S. endangered and threatened species list.

Continental plant species, introduced for various reasons, aggressively wiped out much of the native fauna.  In some cases, seeds have come to the islands on the clothing and boots of visitors.  Today, native vegetation—like native birds—has been virtually extinguished in the lower elevations of the islands.  What you—the tourist—see today is almost nothing like what CL saw from his ship.  Sure, it can look beautiful, but what you see is—as with the people—mostly replacements of what was native.

Hawaiians were deeply connected, both culturally and materially, with the plants and birds that are now extinct.  The environment they knew and depended upon is now mostly gone, replaced by these invaders.

Crops:

These too came in waves: rice, coffee, pineapple, and so on.   Sugar cane is actually a Polynesian introduction, but transforming the land into plantations to produce it factory-style is—like the capitalist economy that drove it—a white introduction.  As the Hawaiian government privatized land starting in 1848 (previously, all land had been held in stewardship by the chiefs), plantations took off.  And soon took over much of the land, like plagues.

What was destroyed here was not only the system by which the Native population had sustained themselves from the land, but entire cultural landscapes.  Hawaiians might rent lands to a large plantation, only to have those lands “disappear”: where all the familiar landmarks had been, an expanse of rice or sugar cane would stretch out. As historian John H. Wise wrote, “Ditches had been filled in, dikes had been leveled off, hedges had been cut down.”.

Today, land under taro—the staple food for Hawaiians—is so small that there is not enough produced to meet demand, making prices high.  This is a food that people from the continent don’t eat, for the most part, but Hawaiians and others who grew up here do.  But local food production is not profitable.  Even the plantations have closed because—thanks to control of much of the land by the former plantation companies—rents are high, meaning labor is expensive.  As a 2012 Hawai‘i State government document reports, “Between 85-90% of Hawaii’s food is imported which makes it particularly vulnerable to natural disasters and global events [like a pandemic] that might disrupt shipping and the food supply.”

And with this imported food and the loss of traditional diet has come yet more epidemics that particularly affect Native Hawaiians.  As a 2016 study points out,

“Native Hawaiians have the shortest life expectancy and exhibit higher mortality rates than the total population due to heart disease, cancer, stroke, and diabetes. Poor health is inextricably linked to socioeconomic factors, and Native Hawaiians are more likely to live below the poverty level, experience higher rates of unemployment, live in crowded and impoverished conditions, and experience imprisonment (Naya, 2007; OHA, 2010). Noteworthy and disturbing are the high percentage of Native Hawaiians who are homeless in their own island homeland.”

People:

Plantations needed labor, and with Hawaiians dying out, white planters turned to other sources in the Asia-Pacific region.  This led to waves of new populations: Chinese, Japanese, Koreans, Okinawans, Portuguese and Filipinos, as well as smaller percentages of other groups.  This created a semi-feudal society divided into plantation owners and plantation laborers.  But the latter mingled together—culturally, then also physically—bonded by a new language, Hawaiian Creole English (locally known as Pidgin).  This collective has emerged as “local” culture, which can include almost any ethnicity except white people. 

“Together with the Native Hawaiian culture, this mix of nationalities worked together as one community in order to survive the challenges of life,” says Moises Madayag, curator of Grove Farm Museum in Līhu‘e, Kaua‘i.  “This paved the way to how we do things, hear each other, come to each other’s aide when others are in need, and treat others with respect when we speak to one another.  This resulted in a beautiful co-existence and mutual respect of the way of life for others.”

Then another wave came, and keeps coming.  Until the mid 1960s, travel to the islands from the continental USA was prohibitive.  Then the airfares went down.  The result: by 1970, one quarter of the entire state’s population had moved there in the previous five years, mostly white people.  Such “transplants” continue to arrive, driving up housing costs and all too often never giving up the American culture of individuality and private property.  They come with far more money than most local people, bringing their white privilege and decorating their properties with non-native plants to create the paradise they envision. 

And local people are literally paying the cost of this epidemic: Kauai’s median sale price for houses hit close to $1 million in November, driven largely by the sale of luxury homes in resort areas.  Not only are rents high, but wages are low, giving Hawai‘i the distinction of  having the country’s largest gap between what the average renter makes, and what they need to occupy a two-bedroom unit at fair-market rent.  This leaves local people working multiple jobs to make ends meet.  And many of those jobs involve serving tourists.  In 2019, over ten million visitors came.  That’s almost ten tourists for every one resident.  And they come expecting the paradise that they have been sold.  This brings us full circle to today’s pandemic.

Keep your distance poster
A poster in Kea‘au, Hawai‘i Island, represents the cultural diversity of the population.

Coronavirus:

Now many continental people want to come here to ride out the pandemic, and the state government is encouraging it, offering free flights to remote workers who want to live here temporarily.  Understandably, the local people recoil in horror. During the summer and early fall months, when travel was limited, not only were some islands virtually COVD-free, but the natural environment started to recover from the 10.5 million visitors who came here last year (the state’s population is about one tenth of that).  Locals are able to enjoy beaches that were previously too crowded with tourists.

And yet we are wearing masks.  Why? Again, because it is inherent in local culture to be responsible to each other.  Even with few to no cases here on the island of Kaua‘i—thanks to the stringent measures of our mayor—the ethos of looking after each other prevails.  Local culture is the opposite of American individuality. These are small islands, and what goes around comes around rather quickly.  Most local people are part of extended families consolidated here.  Elders are respected and cared for.  This is the village of “It takes a village….”

But our visitors mostly are not like that at all.  Why else would they choose to vacation in the midst of a pandemic?  As one local resident, Kaile Wilson, reported “We’ve had a surge in our building alone and every night I’ve seen about 15 to 20 people in the hot tub…At the coffee shop, there has been plenty [about] 40 people I would say outside like [not] spacing and there are probably 90% of them not wearing masks.”

The Honolulu Star-Advertiser reports, “Hawaii residents are largely hesitant to reopen the state to tourism. Nearly two-thirds of Hawaii residents strongly or somewhat agree that people from outside the state should not be visiting Hawaii at this time. Meanwhile, 62% disagreed that the state and county governments can safely reopen tourism and that the 14-day mandatory quarantine is being effectively enforced.”

The same survey showed that visitors are meanwhile complaining that “the destination isn’t back to its pre-pandemic level of activities and services.”  Media pieces are complaining that local people are not showing tourists the aloha that is expected of them.  Some restaurants have banned tourists from eating thereOne article argued that “What is being masked as COVID-19 concern by some Hawaii residents is, in my opinion, more endemic of the local view of outsiders than it is a matter of safety.”  A more sympathetic Los Angeles Times piece asks, “Is Hawaii ready for visitors?”

Meanwhile, Hawai‘i resident Angela Keen organized a Facebook group, Hawaii Quarantine Kapu [taboo] Breakers.  With around 6,500 members, the group helps law enforcement catch those who refuse to follow the rules and break quarantine.  And Derek Kawakami, the mayor of Kaua‘i, has chosen to opt out of the recently instigated pre-travel testing program after travel-related COVID-19 cases more than quadrupled statewide since nonessential travel was opened back up in October.

“But the economy!” you say.  True, in 2019, visitor spending and state visitor taxes netted nearly $20 billion, and account for  23% of local economic activity.  But recent travel-testing restrictions have left us vulnerable: a few days ago a traveler from the continent tested positive for COVID-19 even though she had tested negative both before and after she arrived.  And our resources are scarce: we have nine ICU beds on the island.  If those are taken up by visitors, what is left for the local people?  We’re on an island.  We can’t drive them by ambulance to another location.

Until vaccines put the pandemic to rest, now is time for us all to stay home and take care of each other.  For the Hawaiian Islands, and for Native Hawaiian people in particular, it is like PTSD.  As I‘ini Kahakalau says in this smack-your-face video, “Don’t come with the whole ‘But I LOVE Hawai‘i!’ Let’s be very clear: you do not love Hawai‘i, you enjoy it.  If you loved Hawai‘i, you would have stayed home.”

Trauma has been suffered here so many times and in so many ways.  The islands have been devastated and reshaped to serve outside interests. 

Please, not one more time.  Please stay home, and keep us all safe, until this is over.  Then if and when you do come, please come with respect.

4 thoughts on “Thinking of visiting Hawai‘i right now? The reasons not to have epidemic proportions

  1. Mahalo for writing this. I am a member of Angela Keen’s Hawaii Quarantine Kapu Breakers and I have enthusiastically approved it for publication on the HQKB’s Facebook site. This needs to be posted to every travel website and support group. Visitors need to know why we are so adamant about protecting our island home. Every home has rules. Visitors must respect our laws, history, and our way of life.

  2. So interesting. I’ve been going to Hawaii at least once a year since 1990. Just got back from a trip to Maui and I’ve never felt so appreciated by the locals thanking me for supporting their economy. I did notice that a lot of locals seemed a bit standoffish in the past, but not this trip. Can’t tell you how many sincere thank you’s I received this trip so I’ll trust what the real locals told me vs. this article.

    1. Tourism is indeed a double-edged sword. It brings in money yet crowds the local people out of their beaches and clogs the roads with traffic. I’m sure that the locals you meet show you aloha, they may indeed feel that in their hearts, but they are also trained to as hospitality workers. And as in any population, there is a diversity of feelings and attitudes. That said, your “real locals” are no more real than those discussed in this article. One local resident talked to an ABC store clerk who responded with tears in her eyes that she was grateful to be working at all, yet terrified of getting the coronavirus from careless tourists. If anything, I hope this article showed you a side of local life that you clearly did not see: people who would normally accept your ability to travel here at least once a year for two decades while they work 2-3 jobs to make ends meet, but now feel that keeping their elders and their communities safe is of primary importance. The real answer, long term, is a more diversified economy. Come visit us on your next trip!

  3. Sorry about the hardship of the average house there now being worth close to a million dollars.

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