As someone of Chinese descent who lives in the multicultural mixing pot that is Hawai‘i, I find myself thinking about the fact that May is Asian and Pacific Islander (API) Heritage Month, and how the opportunity to reflect on API heritage in the United States could not have come at a better time. In some ways, what’s happening today with COVID-19 is history repeating itself. As the disease has spread, there has also been a rise in anti-Asian sentiment and xenophobic attacks on Asian people throughout the country. These attacks are provoked and encouraged by the dangerous and inaccurate rhetoric spewed by the current administration, such as referring to COVID-19 as “the Chinese flu.”
Disease outbreaks have long been racialized throughout history and used to systemically scapegoat certain groups of people. This panic-fueled racism intersects with other systems of oppression, such as incarceration, white supremacy, colonization, and poverty.
Although the anti-Asian sentiment on the mainland has been more extreme, we’re still experiencing traces of it here in Hawai‘i, the state that boasts the largest percentage of Asian and Native Hawaiian and Pacific Islander populations thanks to a unique history of plantation labor immigration from Asia and Western colonization. In fact, Hawai‘i’s history of discrimination against API people is one we can learn from.
When the first COVID-19 cases in Hawai‘i were confirmed in early March, Honolulu’s Chinatown saw an immediate 50 percent drop in business. The once bustling streets were suddenly silent and empty, while the malls continued to draw in large crowds. Around this time, a friend confided in me about how she feared for the security of her mom’s job as a waitress in a Chinese restaurant in Honolulu. The restaurant was losing customers, and her mom was losing shifts.
This isn’t the first time Honolulu’s Chinatown has experienced racism catalyzed by a public health crisis.The bubonic plague, believed to have originated in China, spread throughout the world and touched down on the islands at the end of the 19th century. During this time, Hawai‘i was a thriving economic hub in the Pacific Rim coming to terms with full colonial control and the 1893 overthrow of the Hawaiian monarchy. Eurocentric ideology was at a high, which helped foster blatantly racist and false ideas, such as the belief that the “plague seldom attacks clean white people,” as one Honolulu resident wrote.
Under economic pressure, officials first sought to quarantine Chinatown, a working class neighborhood made up of shanties and considered “dirty,” before resorting to burning down entire buildings where plague victims died as a method of “sanitation.” In early 1900, one of these fires burned out of control and swallowed a fifth of Honolulu’s buildings in flames. The residents of the homes that burned down were mainly Chinese, Japanese, and Hawaiian, who were then forced into quarantine camps for weeks with no proper compensation plan to help rebuild their lives.
This displacement of lower working class families, which would leave them struggling to catch up economically for years to come, was a result of public officials overlooking one of the most vulnerable and therefore least influential populations. This political inaction was illustrative of how a society entrenched in white supremacy and colonialism failed to protect the people not considered valuable — in this case, poorer people and people of color.
When considering the intersection of racism and infectious diseases in Hawai‘i, we can’t overlook the leprosarium on the secluded Kalaupapa peninsula on Moloka‘i, an island west of Maui. The highly stigmatized leprosy, or Hansen’s disease, was first diagnosed in the islands in 1848. Little was known about the disease, and it was believed to be more contagious than it actually is. But as with the bubonic plague in Honolulu’s Chinatown, racism infiltrated the way it was handled by public health officials.
From 1866 to 1969, over 8,000 people were permanently exiled to Moloka‘i for having leprosy. Those exiled were not only expected to die there, but society also shunned them as “impure” criminals simply for having the disease. About 97 percent of those exiled to the settlement were Native Hawaiian, a population already shrinking from other diseases introduced by European settlers, while foreigners with leprosy were reportedly allowed to leave the country. Although those exiled to the settlement were eventually given the freedom to return back to society, many found it difficult to be fully welcomed back, instead choosing to live out their lives on Moloka‘i. Today, researchers recall what happened on Moloka‘i to be an example of white colonist interest using public health discourse to segregate, tear apart, and ultimately disempower Native Hawaiian communities.
These examples are not isolated events, and they should not be forgotten. If we don’t learn from the past, we risk further harming groups of people who are already marginalized. In Hawai‘i, two populations especially vulnerable to the pandemic — the houseless and the incarcerated — are disproportionately made up of Native Hawaiian and Pacific Islander peoples. Although Native Hawaiians make up 24 percent of the state’s population, they account for 39 percent of the prison population.
This disproportionate representation shows up in our houseless population as well. In 2019, Hawai‘i ranked as the state with the second-highest rate of homelessness, and the majority of people who use homeless shelters are Native Hawaiian and Pacific Islander. It’s notoriously hard to make ends meet in Hawai‘i, where the cost of living is high, but the cycle of poverty is especially difficult for Native Hawaiians, who have been trying to recover ever since Europeans arrived. In 2017, the poverty rate for all Hawai‘i residents was 9.5 percent, but for Native Hawaiians, it jumped to 13.4 percent — the disparity likely due to lower education levels and lower wages.
In California, despite making up a small part of the state’s population, Native Hawaiians and Pacific Islanders have the highest COVID-19 death rate of any group. And these aren’t the only groups of people being affected at a disproportionate rate — Indigenous, Latinx, and Black communities are also suffering due to racial disparities in our health care system across the nation.
If this month serves any purpose, it is for everyone — not just those of API descent — to reflect on how racism itself is intertwined with systems of oppression. If the numbers above indicate anything, it’s that the harmful effects of colonialism and decades of systemic oppression are long lasting and impact countless aspects of many people’s lives. As a vehicle for racism, COVID-19 presents a critical lesson. This pandemic — and the others from Hawaii’s history — sheds light on the damaging legacy of racism and oppression. As health and safety are rightfully on people’s minds, it’s going to take everyone working together to forgo harmful, unproductive racist ideologies and instead advocate for our politicians and institutions to ensure that everyone feels protected and safe — now, and after the moment of crisis has passed.