Why Hawaiʻi's Marshallese Are Taking COVID-19 Matters Into Their Own Hands

Sep 9, 2020

Pacific Islanders in Hawaii are being disproportionately hit by the pandemic. They're 4 percent of the population and more than 30 percent of the state’s COVID-19 cases. The state has struggled to bring that number down, prompting at least one Pacific Islander community to take matters into their own hands.

Over the past six months, Hawaiʻi’s Marshallese community has set up grassroots rapid response teams on all major islands. They’ve organized food and mask drives—and now are about to train community volunteers to do contact tracing.

A mask drive in Kona organized by the Big Island Marshallese Community Association, one of several groups involved with the Marshall Islands COVID-19 Task Force.
Credit Big Island Marshallese Community Association

"We wanted to be part of the solution," said Hilo Dr. Wilfred Alik, who heads the all-volunteer Marshall Islands COVID-19 Task Force. The group virtually meets every week and is made up of doctors, government officials, and members from this statewide network of Marshallese community associations.

"Really the focus of the task force is on the education piece. The more information people have, the better decisions they can make. And that information has to be where they can understand, it’s in their language, and culturally competent and sensitive," said Dr. Alik.

The soon-to-be trained contact tracers would also provide information on wrap-around services like health care and rental assistance; as well as follow-up support to explain COVID-19 test results or how to properly quarantine -- all of it in the Marshallese language.

Task force member Kelly Bokin hosts the Marshallese hour every Wednesdays on local radio station KNDI in Honolulu.

Task force member Kelly Bokin uses the airwaves to host a Marshallese hour every Wednesdays on local radio station KNDI in Honolulu.
Credit Kelly Bokin

He tries to pack as much information on COVID-19 into the show as he can because it’s in his native tongue and he knows his community is listening.

"That is actually the biggest challenge in the community," said Bokin, "A lot of our people don’t understand English."

Task force members constantly monitor constantly changing COVID-19 regulations to ensure they swiftly translate the orders into their native tongue. Here's an August 20 translation of Honolulu City & County's Act Now order.
Credit Marshallese Community Organization of Hawai'i

Bokin is also a leader in the Oʻahu-based Marshallese Community Organization of Hawaiʻi. The group helps translate COVID-19 materials into the Marshallese language for federal, state, and county health authorities.

The task force has become a go-to resource for Hawaiiʻ’s Marshallese, especially those testing positive for COVID-19.

Isabella Silk, consul general for the Republic of the Marshall Islands, explains how the rapid response efforts began somewhat organically.

"There was this one time my husband and I and the kids were eating dinner and someone called and said somebody’s at home that just found that they’re positive and it was like 9 p.m.," she said.

Drive-thru food and mask drives have become a constant for the Marshall Islands COVID-19 Task Force.
Credit Marshallese Community Organization of Hawai'i

"They know because we’ve been doing public outreach like when you’re positive you have to stay home. The person wasn’t living far from me so I stopped my dinner," she said.

She ordered takeout and delivered that night. Other task force members have similar tales of late-night food, mask, and cleaning supply deliveries. The group hopes to formalize this process by eventually creating a Marshallese language COVID-19 hotline. 

Silk also hopes to manifest the power of social media by creating a video campaign to share testimony from Marshallese survivors of COVID-19. 

"Like our brothers and sisters from other Pacific Islands, it was never a written language to record stories in the past. So knowledge and skills were always passed down orally," said Silk, "I believe this mechanism of education is still very important and can provide a positive impact."

The Woddejippel Marshallese Women's Group in Kona on the Big Island have taken on much of the outreach kuleana in their community.
Credit Big Island Marshallese Community Association

Alik says much of the task force's success comes from its ability to tap a vast network of Marshallese community organizations across the island chain. Task force member Meetu Kelen says leveraging those community connections early on was key. She's a community health care worker at the West Hawai'i Community Health Center. 

"We have a Big Island Marshallese Community Association. We have the Woddejippel Women Marshallese leaders," said Kelen, "We've met with them, included them since the beginning to do outreach, mask delivery, and distribution of COVID-19 flyers. Going door-to-door to the low-income affordable housing. Just being able to work with them - that helps a lot."

But Alik says the group’s superpower is the culture and harnessing that good old-fashioned Marshallese value of the common good.

Dr. Wilfred Alik's grandkids are all masked up to keep their jimma (grandpa) and bubu (grandma) safe during the pandemic.
Credit Dr. Wilfred Alik

"Getting the whole family together and saying we’re doing this for jimma. Jimma is grandpa in our language. We’re doing this for bubu. Bubu is like grandma. It’s about the 'us' and not the individual. You do everything for the sake of the family."

Alik says there’s much left to be done and the task force may not have all the answers. But they don’t have the time to wait for anyone else.