A July 31 drive thru COVID-19 testing event for Pacific Islanders hosted by PICAWA and ICHS at Federal Way High School included cars with multiple members of the same household looking to be tested. Photo courtesy of ICHS.

Joseph Seia, executive director of the Pacific Islander Community Association of Washington (PICAWA), offers a sobering view of the impact of the pandemic on the state’s Pacific Islander community, “We go to so many funerals that they start feeling like parties.”

There are currently 2,933 COVID-19 infections per 100,000 Native Hawaiian Pacific Islanders (NHPI) in Pierce County; six times the rate of infection for whites and double the rate for the Black and Latinx communities. These numbers mirror similar trends nationally, and with these high infection rates comess high mortality rates. 

Among the contributing factors: many Pacific Islanders work low-paying essential jobs that put them in the crosshairs of the pandemic, and live in multi-generational households.

“A lot of the outbreaks in the Pacific Islander community started with their employers,” said Seia. “We work for depressed wages and the workplaces are often infestations.”

Seia explained individual infections are then compounded by crowded living conditions, which help spread illness to other family members. “We often don’t have the resources to avoid multi-generational households. Statistically, NHPI have the highest poverty rates in the country.”

These socio-economic factors are strongly rooted in long-standing systemic racism and inequalities. “Eight out of 10 Pacific Islanders in the U.S. are indigenous people of U.S. colonies,” said Seia “A lot of our communities are still treated like outsiders even though America landed on our territory.”

“There’s a long history of colonization in all of our pacific regions, which has set the stage for the racism that we experience in our community” Seia explained. “You now have a lot of Pacific Islanders on the mainland who suffer from the dynamics that were previously established.” 

Of the 59 languages listed for language support by the Census Bureau, none were Pacific Islander. Seia says this is indicative of a larger systemic problem: Pacific Islanders voices are being erased, from the Census to policy decisions in Congress. As Pacific Islanders are overlooked or, more commonly, lumped together with Asians, they are “deleted.”

“Many people are blaming our culture and saying that Pacific Islanders just don’t know how to social distance,” said Seia. “It’s nonsense.”

Short-term, health interventions that recognize Pacific Islander’s distinct culture and languages are a key step in halting the high rate of infection. 

Seia’s group has hosted chats with a physician to help increase understanding about COVID-19 and its transmission. On July 31, PICAWA partnered with International Community Health Services (ICHS), a non-profit health center with ties to the Asian and Pacific Islander communities, to hold drive-thru COVID-19 testing for “community members whose heritage comes from the Pacific Islands.”

Sherryl Grey, ICHS director of community health services, oversees a team of outreach workers who help underserved communities access health information and resources. “It’s so important to have a trusted source deliver the message – in your language and with respect and understanding of your culture – especially with something like COVID-19, which already casts a layer of fear and stigma,” said Grey. “Helping communities that have been hard hit by the pandemic means working within the community itself, and with its leaders and respected figures on prevention, testing and other efforts.” 

Lupe Anitema, a member of the state-wide Community Health Worker Task Force, offers another short-term solution for NHPI. She participates in a grocery delivery service for at-risk NHPI in Pierce County. She coordinates team members to drop off fresh groceries at people’s doorsteps, so that they can limit their outside contact by not going to the grocery store. 

Lupe has a different view regarding programs for her NHPI community. “My thought is that when we reach out with programs, we see families falling back again and again. So we want community leaders to reach out to families and teach a spiritual way to live, and mix that learning with our programs.”

In the long-term, building a healthier Pacific Islander community starts with empowering its members to create their own change. 

“When Pacific Islanders are able to politicize their leadership, their voices, and their communities, they can strategically co-design policies that work,” said Seia. “There’s a lot of invisibility and erasure that happens because we are thought of as Asian. We’re not at the table when it comes to policy discussions. COVID just highlights the historic erasure of Pacific Islanders and their people.” Local organizations such as PICAWA, the Marshallese Women’s Association, and UTOPIA (United Territories of Pacific Islanders Alliance) are available for NHPI in Washington. 

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