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‘We had a lot of funerals in 2020’: Alaska Polynesian leaders weigh in on disproportionate impact of pandemic

Published: Feb. 8, 2021 at 3:55 PM AKST
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ANCHORAGE, Alaska (KTUU) - Throughout the course of the pandemic, Native Hawaiians and Pacific Islanders have been one of the most disproportionately affected by COVID-19 when it comes to the number of people in these communities who are sent to the hospital and die from the disease, according to two state releases. Leaders in the Polynesian community attribute much of the data behind those statistics to the way Pacific Islanders like to live: close together around their friends and families.

According to 2019 Census data, there are only about 9,900 Native Hawaiian and Pacific Islander residents in Alaska. Founder of the Polynesian Association of Alaska, Lusiana Hansen, said now it’s closer to 13,000. Still, this demographic only accounts for about 2% of the population, while accounting for 10% of the total deaths by COVID-19 according to the state.

Hansen explained that Polynesian people place great value in family gatherings. Everything from graduations, birthdays and church almost always has a huge turnout.

“It’s like a tree, like every root that’s connected,” Hansen said. “Everybody comes. Like first cousins, second cousins, mother, father, grandparents, and so forth, and even friends. So they all come together, and I think that’s why the virus was so fast in our community.”

Nama Faleafine-Neufeldt is a part of the Samoan Seventh-day Adventists Church, she explained that at these large gatherings, the community embraces one another. Mandates and guidance don’t call for that right now though, she said that makes it feel like a major part of Polynesian life was taken away.

“We’re people that are very warm. We like to hug. We like to shake hands. So it was very difficult. And we felt that we were distancing not only physically but emotionally,” Neufeldt said.

Churches are now allowed to have services once again. Neufeldt said they’ve been cracking down on mitigation techniques at the ones she’s involved with. She said no one has come down with COVID-19 there since October.

Moe Tali is the pastor at MCA Island Revival in Anchorage. He said he’s been having to be harder on the rules as well.

“Even when they come down with the sickness, you know I’m constantly telling them, ‘well you’re supposed to be away from everyone, from anybody. You’re not supposed to be in public and you’re supposed to quarantine,’” Tali said.

Funerals are a type of gathering that really stands out for Pacific Islanders, according to Hansen. She described them as “a celebration of life,” and they are usually far bigger, and last much longer than a common funeral.

“Cut it down because of the COVID, it’s probably just a couple days or just a weekend or one day. But in our homeland, it can go a whole month,” Hansen said. “We have funerals and our loved ones travel from outside. They come in and they don’t quarantine. They go to the funeral. So they bring whatever they bring with them.”

Liliane Ulukivaiola in Anchorage said many Pacific Islander families live in large households which complicates staying coronavirus-free.

“I’ll use myself as an example. I live in a house full of 10 other people,” Ulukivaiola said. “So it’s not unfamiliar for us to live in multi-generational homes where it’s hard to tell all of us, every single person to social distance. Every single person to keep a small social bubble.”

Additionally, state data shows that in that period from Jan. 1 to Oct. 15, 2020, 93% of Pacific Islanders sent to the hospital with COVID-19 had underlying health conditions like heart disease, obesity, and type 2 diabetes.

“I don’t know of any — maybe our younger generation, the ones in high school and college — that does not have any underlying health issues,” Tali said.

Tali said a lot of Pacific Islanders have a mentality that they are “too tough” for the coronavirus. While they work within their own communities to spread the message to take the pandemic seriously and to take care of themselves, they have been working with the state to get the word out about practicing mitigation techniques. That includes translating information and producing informational videos like this video with DHSS to make communication easier.

Additionally, Hansen said the Polynesian Association of Alaska is hosting an information panel on Monday for Native Hawaiians and Pacific Islanders to learn more about the vaccine. She said they can be reached by emailing POAAlaska@gmail.com or call (907) 250-4142 to listen in.

“If you need the vaccine, please call and make an appointment for the vaccine so you can be able to get this help. It’s on the person’s decision. It’s your life. If you want to, you are welcome to call us and let us know that you need an appointment and we can call and set up an appointment for you,” Hansen said.

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