Native Hawaiians and Pacific Islanders Hit Hard by COVID-19

with Tavae Samuelu of Empowering Pacific Islander Communities (EPIC)

Native Hawaiians and Pacific Islanders have among the highest rates of COVID-19 cases and deaths of all racial and ethnic groups in the U.S.

Tavae Samuelu, Executive Director of Empowering Pacific Islander Communities (EPIC), joins host Tetiana Anderson to discuss longstanding inequities that put Native Hawaiian and Pacific Islander populations at risk, and what can be done to protect the future of their communities.

Posted on:

April 29, 2022

Hosted by: Tetiana Anderson
Produced by: National Newsmakers Team

Anderson: The COVID-19 pandemic has underscored long-standing systemic social and health inequities facing members of racial and ethnic minority groups. Some of those disparities have been well-documented. But according to a 2020 study from the University of Hawaii, Native Hawaiians and Pacific Islanders have among the highest rate of cases and deaths from COVID-19 among all racial and ethnic groups, a fact that remains widely unrecognized. Hello and welcome to "Comcast Newsmakers." I'm Tetiana Anderson. Two years into the pandemic, not much has changed for Native Hawaiians and Pacific Islander Americans. Members of this community will experience long-term effects in the years to come. And joining me to talk about all of this is Tavae Samuelu, executive director of Empowering Pacific Islander Communities. And, Tavae, thanks for being here.

Samuelu: Thank you for having me.

Anderson: So let's start with the why here. I mean, why is it that Native Hawaiians and Pacific Islanders are dealing with such high rates of COVID? And what are the main causes leading to these stark outcomes that we've been seeing?

Samuelu: I appreciate the work of Kimberle Crenshaw. She has talked and named that during this pandemic, the biggest preexisting condition is inequality. And so that we know that the high rates of COVID-19 and NHPI community are an inevitability of long-standing inequity and inequality, and that COVID rates for our community right now and over the past two years are what racism and poverty look like. That in California alone, an estimated 30,000 NHPIs serve as essential workers, which means higher rates of exposure. And why that's important in California is because California has the largest NHPI population on the continent. So we know that, in many ways, this is sort of a litmus test of what will happen in different states where we have population hubs. The other thing to note is that poverty means that overcrowded housing, it means that folks can't actually practice isolation and quarantine, things that would have kept their family safe. So one person in a household of 15 getting COVID means 15 Pacific Islanders then have COVID. And so these things are what are at hand. And in addition to that, we also see the ways that systems and infrastructure are not prepared for our communities, not even having materials that were translated into our languages. And so it's something that EPIC and our partners really took on as our responsibility in making sure that messaging was culturally relevant for the Pacific Islander community, really talked about not individual rights, but how we protect our families, our elders, our children. And then also providing both interpretation and translation in Samoan, Tongan, [indistinct] and Marshallese.

Anderson: You talked about the issue of poverty being sort of central to this and how it impacted COVID. But there were other long-standing health issues in this population before, right? I mean, what kinds of things are we talking about?

Samuelu: I know there's plenty of data to support and talk about comorbidities that make our communities more vulnerable, that some of the leading causes of death for our communities are things like cancer, heart disease, diabetes. And so I recognize that these are comorbidities and that these are things that exist. And they also don't come out of nowhere, that they are symptomatic of systems that don't serve us. I think some of the victories around advocacy that did occur during the pandemic were things like the restoration of COFA Medicaid that occurred at the federal level in December 2020, as it means that an entire population and portion of our Pacific Islander communities now are able to access Medicare. So I think these are things that need to be part of the nuance of the conversation of understanding that it's not that our communities are inherently unhealthy, it's that we often are not provided the tools to take care of ourselves.

Anderson: I'm wondering about the communities where these high rates of COVID have been appearing because they're in some very specific places, right?

Samuelu: That's correct. I think this is the other thing to note, right, that the -- Thinking about Pacific Islanders and the geographies that we find ourselves in, where the largest populations are in Hawaii. And these are also indicative, right, that we're not just seeing it in one place, that we're seeing it in several states where there are Pacific Islander population hubs from Hawaii to California, Washington, Utah, Arkansas. Everywhere we knew our communities live, work, play, and worship, we were seeing these devastating rates of COVID.

Anderson: And I'm wondering what has changed or what has improved in the native Hawaiian and Pacific Islander communities since COVID first took hold. I mean, what's working in your mind and what still needs to be done to access these folks?

Samuelu: Yeah, I think what's been beautiful and what I'm proudest about and always really proud of is watching our young people and our elders. There's been this intergenerational approach of understanding that what's at stake is taking care of each other, that we're responsible for each other. That's the messaging that stated that we need to both protect our elders, to get vaccinated, and also protect the future of the community. Many of the campaigns we talk about are for keiki, kupuna, and culture, knowing that that's what's at stake. And many of the lessons also taken from watching our American Indian and Alaska Native siblings, especially when the vaccine was first released, we saw that the Navajo Nation had chosen to vaccinate first, those who spoke the language. And I think that sort of example is something that we're looking at as Pacific Islander people. We have partners in Washington who are actually helping folks to fill out unemployment applications in Marshallese because these materials are not translated for our communities. Folks who are doing everything from preachers who -- and pastors who are at the pulpit talking about how the COVID vaccine is a way to be a good Christian or masking is the best way to take care of your neighbors. So it is a beautiful example of the ways that people are really leveraging our cultural practices in order to make sure that we are safe and healthy. I think what we are also looking at, even as folks are emerging from the pandemic, is making sure that the urgency is still understood, that two years later, we still have the highest rates. And though we've been successful in stopping the spread, it is about keeping -- staying vigilant in the practices that have worked thus far.

Anderson: And, Tavae, if people want to know more about the work that you're doing or the communities that you're impacting, what's the website? Where can they go?

Samuelu: Folks can visit the EPIC website --

Anderson: Tavae Samuelu of Empowering Pacific Islander Communities, thank you so much for being here.

Samuelu: Thank you for having me. I really appreciate it.

Anderson: And thanks to you as well for joining us. For more great conversations with leaders in your own community and across the nation, just log on to I'm Tetiana Anderson.

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