Samoans, Pasifika people's untold COVID-19 toll in America

Advocates for Samoan and Pacific islanders in the United States say they are being discriminated against during the COVID-19 pandemic and the virus' disproportionate effects on their communities are being masked.

Manumalo Ala’ilima, the co-chair and co-founder of the United Territories of Pacific Islanders Alliance Portland, or U.T.O.P.I.A. P.D.X. has been reported by local media as saying COVID-19 has affected Hawaiian and Pacific Islander communities disproportionately. 

Ala’ilima even went so far to say that Samoan, Hawaiian and Pacific Islander communities had been ignored, he told the Vox news outlet. 

In June, Ala’ilima got a call from a family member that their brother was hospitalised for COVID-19. 

Ala’ilima lives in Portland, Oregon, while the rest of their family — some of whom also contracted the virus — live in Southern California.

For a while, Ala’ilima was convinced their brother would soon recover. 

But during their daily calls, his breathing, already labored, grew fainter until he couldn’t call or text anymore. A week and a half later, their family spent three hours saying their goodbyes over video. 

Ala’ilima watched, from their phone, as the hospital staff removed her brother’s life support. 

“In my mind, I was thinking to myself — no, not my family,” Ala’ilima, who is of Samoan and Tongan descent, told Vox.  

“The hardest thing was debating at that time whether or not to attend his funeral because Southern California was a hot spot [for COVID-19 infections].

“How would we reimagine what a cultural funeral would be like so that we could celebrate and honor my brother in a very safe and accessible way?”

When the U.S. State of Oregon began publishing a weekly COVID-19 report at the pandemic’s onset, Ala’ilima noticed that Native Hawaiian and Pacific Islanders had the highest infection rates.

In the State, they accounted for 13.1 per 10,000 cases in the middle of April. 

And yet the group wasn’t even included in Oregon’s priority testing list when testing access was limited in the state, he said.

Ala’ilima said America’s Centre for Disease Control and Prevention (C.D.C.) does not acknowledge the disproportionate impact of COVID-19 deaths and hospitalisations. 

The C.D.C., like other Government agencies, tend to aggregate Pacific Islander under the Asian demographic, Ala’ilima said, hiding the extent of the virus' effect on the community.

Due to this lack of data from U.S. government agencies, the United Territories of Pacific Islanders Alliance Portland (known as U.T.O.P.I.A. P.D.X.) began advocating and providing resources to the Pacific and Hawaiian communities. 

“When this pandemic hit, we thought: ‘Do we let these government agencies derail our community?’ or ‘Are we going to help our community get the resources that they need in a culturally respectful and competent way?’” Ala’ilima said. 

In August, Ninez Ponce, the director of the University of California of Los Angeles’ Centre for Health Policy Research, and a group of scholars launched a dedicated policy lab to collect data about COVID-19 impacts on Pacific Islander groups. 

As of 2 December, the Pacific and Hawaiian community have collectively been infected with 30,832 cases and 366 deaths, the university said.

But these numbers could be higher due to the groups not being captured in other states’ data. 

Ponce said when COVID-19 infection rates are calculated on a per capita basis, cases among Native Hawaiian and Pacific Islanders are the highest compared to any other racial or ethnic groups in 14 of 21 states studied.

“NHPIs are currently seeing infection rates up to five times that of white people in Los Angeles County alone, and this impact is being felt across the country,” Ponce told Vox. 

“The impact on the NHPIs is devastating, and without accurate data, lives are lost each day.”

Pacific Islanders are a category that includes native Hawaiians, Chamorus, Samoans, Marshallese, Tongans, Fijians, and more. 

But for a long time, government surveys have defined them under the broader generic “Asian American” category, despite many advocates saying the group is better grouped under the Native American category. 

Some 8 out of 10 Pacific Islanders in the country are indigenous to American-colonised territories, according to a report by a White House Initiative on Asian Americans and Pacific Islanders.

These US-colonised islands are scattered across the Pacific Ocean’s three regions — Melanesia, Polynesia, and Micronesia. 

Before European and American voyagers began colonising the islands, indigenous Pacific Islanders, like Native Americans, had been co-existing with the land and water for centuries. 

But after the advent of colonialism, the Pacific was burdened with disproportionate ill health, researchers have found. 

A change to islander diets (including the rising popularity of oily and canned food), major illnesses, economic practices, and even military contamination have all been linked to lifestyle ill-effects. 

Health experts say because Pacific Islanders already suffer disproportionately on many fronts such as vulnerability to diabetes or a lack of health insurance they are more vulnerable to the severe impacts of COVID-19.

Data from the state of Hawaii shows a hugely disproportionate impact of COVID-19 on Pacific Islander groups including Chuukese, Marshallese, and Samoan residents. They are more than twice as likely to suffer severe COVID-19 outcomes than other groups.

Before Ala’ilima’s brother passed away from COVID-19, he had high blood pressure and diabetes. He was also a former U.S. Marine and had just retired from working at the Transportation Security Administration. 

While their family was playing it safe the whole time, Ala’ilima’s brother was the one doing the errands — so they believe that he contracted the disease while shopping for groceries.

The grieving process was the hardest part. 

“The pandemic is asking us how do we grieve in a totally different way that is considered appropriate,” they told Vox. 

“It’s so hard. Even our family who were there couldn’t be with him in his last moments.”

The Pacific Islander community are also more likely than others to be uninsured, even excluded from the Government healthcare programme Medicaid, and are more likely to be frontline essential workers.

Joseph Seia, the Executive Director of the Pacific Islander Community Association in Washington state (P.IC.A.-W.A.), said:

“If you look at the actual breakdown, the nuance of it all, our community is suffering [...] every [Pacific Islander] group.

“It’s just sad because everybody knows someone in the community who died.”

In Oregon, U.T.O.P.I.A. P.D.X has been working with lawmakers to prioritise health care services for migrants. 

“We’re not gonna leave our people hanging,” Ala’ilima said. “I don’t like being in a situation where a disparity like this is impacting our community this way. But in a lot of ways, it brought us all closer together, that we know we have each other’s backs, and we’re able to advocate for ourselves.”

Pacific advocacy groups are also challenging Government agencies to reveal the full extent of the pandemic’s effect on their populations by changing their data collection. 

“It’s using whatever influence we have to try to further our cause and our advocacy so we can get meaningful visibility and our voices magnified,” said Ala’ilima, adding that the memory of their brother is driving their advocacy work. 

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