Support Intelligent, In-Depth, Trustworthy Journalism.
Maea Lenei Buhre
Maea Lenei Buhre
Leave your feedback
As COVID-19 swept across the United States it became clear that the virus disproportionately affected certain racial and ethnic groups. But the outsized impact of the pandemic on one community -- Native Hawaiians and Pacific Islanders -- has been largely hidden because of inconsistent data collection and reporting. Stephanie Sy reports as part of our series, "Race Matters."
As COVID-19 swept across the United States, it became clear that the virus disproportionately affected certain racial and ethnic groups.
But the outsized impact of the pandemic on one community, Native Hawaiians and Pacific Islanders has been largely hidden because of inconsistent data collection and reporting.
Stephanie Sy has the story. It's part of our series Race Matters.
As he walks among the new gravestones, Eldon Alik remembers the many in his community lost in the last two years to COVID-19.
Eldon Alik, Consul General, Republic of the Marshall Islands: This guy right here, we're from the same island in the Marshall Islands, the same family, so as this lady right here.
Fellow countrymen from the Marshall Islands laid to rest in Springdale, Arkansas, more than 6,000 miles away from their homeland, a group of more than 1,200 small islands about halfway between Hawaii and Australia.
Alik is Springdale's consul general for the Marshall Islands. He represents the estimated 20,000 Marshallese who live in Northwest Arkansas, the largest such enclave in the continental United States.
July like two years ago, we had a person dying every day. We had 33 deaths that month. Every morning, I'd get up and I — my phone would ring, and somebody else would die.
Despite making up less than 4 percent of the population of this area, in the first two months of the pandemic, 38 percent of all COVID-19 deaths were Marshallese.
Ninez Ponce, UCLA Center for Health Policy Research: This community is like the canary in a coal mine.
Ninez Ponce heads UCLA's Center for Health Policy Research. She says Arkansas' Marshallese are not alone. Others from the Pacific region known as Native Hawaiians and Pacific Islanders faced similar COVID disparities across the U.S.
When the data first came out about COVID cases and deaths by race, ethnicity, I was, frankly, really shocked.
In 14 of the 27 states with available data, Native Hawaiians and Pacific Islanders have the highest death rates from COVID-19, compared with any other racial or ethnic groups.
Other states didn't even have data on Native Hawaiians and Pacific Islanders.
So, Native Hawaiian and Pacific Islander were grouped into, what, just Asians?
They were either grouped in the Asian category, or they were grouped in an other category, or they just didn't show up at all.
Grouping them together in a broad category with Asians, a much larger population, hides their uniquely high rates. For example, in California, the COVID death rate for Asian and Pacific Islanders in 2020 was 75 per 100,000.
But when the data for the two groups were separated, the rate for Native Hawaiian and Pacific Islanders alone jumped to 123 per 100,000, the highest in the state, while the rate for Asians remained roughly the same.
They're just too easy to be hidden in the numbers. It's an invisibility in really learning how to meet the needs of the communities that were most affected.
The more specific the data, she says, the clearer picture of specific challenges and resources needed in the nation's diverse communities.
Melisa Laelan runs the Arkansas Coalition of Marshallese, a nonprofit also based in Springdale.
Melisa Laelan, Arkansas Coalition of Marshallese: There was a lot of socioeconomic setbacks already, even prior to the COVID-19. So, when the COVID-19 hit, it just magnified everything else that we were experiencing.
The majority of working-age Marshallese in Northwest Arkansas work at poultry plants. At the start of the pandemic, they were especially vulnerable to COVID-19 because they had to keep working in crowded conditions, and many also live in crowded housing.
During the pandemic, Laelan herself opened her home to several family members due to another pandemic impact, those who lost their work hours and could not make rent.
You went from having your household, which I understand is four children and your husband, to how many people?
Quite a bit, let's just say.
In our culture, you don't let people become homeless. I'm the only one who has a — considered a big house. I didn't have a choice. I had to take them in.
Laelan says, when many in her community quarantined because of the virus, their pay was reduced.
That caused them to not be able to keep up with their bills, including the rent.
Did you see an uptick in the number of clients that needed services during the pandemic?
Yes. Our numbers jumped like three times. And that's why we came up with, OK, the idea of beginning our own food pantry, because food was actually one of the forefront issues that we were seeing.
Her organization also helped provide rental assistance and made deliveries to quarantined families.
On top of economic factors, Native Hawaiians and Pacific Islanders have disproportionately high rates of chronic diseases, like heart disease, diabetes, and asthma, all linked to an increased risk of severe symptoms from COVID-19.
I'd say maybe over 90 percent of those Marshallese that passed away had underlying disease.
Consul General Alik also says high rates of cancer among the community increased their risk.
The seconds go slowly, silently by and then…
The Marshall Islands were the site of U.S. nuclear weapons testing between 1946 and 1958, and studies have shown nuclear fallout from this testing has been correlated with higher risks of certain cancers among Marshallese.
Another systemic barrier is health care.
Even prior to the pandemic, our people did not have access to good health care. People really kind of sat on their health. Even though they were sick, they wouldn't go and visit doctors.
Laelan says many did not treat their conditions because they were uninsured. Medicaid was only extended to Marshallese, who have a special immigration status in the U.S., in December 2020.
Melisa Laelan could see the pain COVID was causing in her community, but until they worked with Ponce's team at UCLA, they didn't have the data to prove the need.
I think that was very vital and very important, because that information really told the story.
Having hard numbers about case and death rates enabled Laelan's organization to apply for and receive resources. On the day the Marshallese Consulate opened its new offices recently, Laelan's staff distributed frozen food and worked alongside a local clinic to provide flu and COVID-19 vaccinations, as well as information in Marshallese.
After all the death in the community, it's good to have good news once in a while.
Experts believe that COVID's impact on other Native Hawaiian and Pacific Islander communities remains un-tallied.
But in Springdale, Arkansas, many Marshallese are cautiously optimistic, with increased vaccinations and the knowledge that the data tells their pandemic story.
For the "PBS NewsHour," I'm Stephanie Sy.
Watch the Full Episode
Stephanie Sy is a PBS NewsHour correspondent and serves as anchor of PBS NewsHour West. Throughout her career, she served in anchor and correspondent capacities for ABC News, Al Jazeera America, CBSN, CNN International, and PBS NewsHour Weekend. Prior to joining NewsHour, she was with Yahoo News where she anchored coverage of the 2018 Midterm Elections and reported from Donald Trump’s victory party on Election Day 2016.
Maea Lenei Buhre is a general assignment producer for the PBS NewsHour.
Support Provided By:
Support PBS NewsHour:
Subscribe to Here’s the Deal, our politics newsletter for analysis you won’t find anywhere else.
Thank you. Please check your inbox to confirm.
Additional Support Provided By: