The Stories of COVID-19
Jasmyne Kaleimakana Lewis
Over the past year, Covid-19 has been affecting people all over the world in many different ways. Particularly in Hawai‘i, job loss is evident in the tourism industry as it reveals how Covid-19 has had a tremendous impact on all aspects of life to the people of Hawai’i over the past year. Additionally, the sudden and dramatic changes resulting from Covid-19 have led to an increase in trauma and mental health issues. Over the past months, I had the opportunity to work with Dr. Davianna McGregor, Professor of Ethnic Studies and Director at the Center for Oral History, interviewing people to document their experiences in and what they’ve learned through the COVID-19 pandemic. In preserving these stories, my hope was that participants would feel a sense of healing when they shared their stories with me and that it gave hope for a better future.
The individuals that I interviewed either lived in Hawai’i, or grew up here, and what I found was not surprising as it was a mixture of things. At first, I did not grasp just how much people’s lives and well-being were changed in so many different ways. Yet, all these stories made me realize the magnitude that the pandemic also has on people. It made me realize that stories much like our lives should be cherished in the present day as well as in the future because they are a part of history.
What follows are several stories highlighting some of the ways that Covid-19 has impacted the people of Hawai’i. From immigration status to changing social relations, to living with the virus. While sharing the experiences of these individuals, these stories paint a picture of what so many in Hawai’i have been living through over the past year.
Anis Hamidati, a student from Jakarta, shared with me how tough it is to have to travel during the Coronavirus when she had to travel back to Jakarta from Hawai’i when the virus began here around March, 2020. She is an international student at the University of Hawaiʻi studying education, and she said, “As much as I love Hawaiʻi, there are so many uncertainties as an international student that on top of being a normal student living during the pandemic, we continue to worry about our immigration status.” What I found interesting was that she had no power over what she could do. In a way, she had to go home because that’s all that she had left, and what makes the Coronavirus and immigration so serious is that in the time of great panic she knew that her only option was to go home. That’s the big thing with Coronavirus— that your options are narrowed as you have to do what is safe and what’s best for your circumstance. Anis went on to say in her interview, “I don’t think I’ve lived in a place that has harsher or more difficult immigration status.” This surprised me because when you think about it, the US is one of the most powerful countries in the world yet when it comes to immigration it’s very difficult. I appreciate Anis and found her message powerful. Even though she’s not here in the Hawaiʻi, she is still working for her doctorate and hopes to return soon.
Caroline Koa from Kaneohe has experienced difficulties since the start of COVID-19. Her husband lost his job working in the travel industry and is unable to receive unemployment at this time. She receives unemployment and her daughter is a full-time teacher so they are living off of the daughter’s salary. The daughter has a baby who is still breastfeeding and they all live together. What’s hard about this situation is that Mrs. Koa has to watch her granddaughter now that the daughter is working full-time and she has noticed significant changes in the granddaughter’s social skills and interactions.
Koa says her daughter “has regressed socially. She’s timid and she’s afraid of staying… you know strangers. I mean, at this age, it is not uncommon for babies to, you know, be wary of strangers and to be afraid of new people. But she was just getting to that place where she was kind of interested in what other kids were doing and wanting to go and look and see what they were doing and play with them. But now she just, you know, leaves her head in our neck and or our chest and doesn’t even want to look at strangers.” Because Mrs. Koa’s daughter works at school, she had to make sure that it was safe for her to be around her child. Mrs. Koa stated, “The baby’s too young to understand that, no, you cannot come to Mommy right now. So she can’t even see her mom till the mom has decontaminated.” It’s heartbreaking to see a child, who does not even know what is going on, have to learn how to cope with not being able to play with other kids or even go outside.
The effects of Covid-19 have been impacting children on their education and social interaction. Lai‘kū Morales from Kūnia has especially missed his classmates and friends at school. He is in the second grade and from March 2020 he has been attending school on Zoom. Since the start of quarantine, he has started a drawing book and throughout our interview, he showed me various drawings and paintings he has made throughout his time at home. What I found particularly interesting about his interview is the childhood innocence that remains in him. Though he knows that Covid is serious, he tries to get through it the best he can by drawing what is happening in his life and around him. As a seven-year-old, he has had to adjust to life online with no social interaction, and even for adults, this has been challenging. Yet, he remains happy and optimistic about the pandemic and that he will be going back to school soon.
When I asked him what he wished he could do, he replied, “What I wish? I wish I could go bowling.” This made me laugh, because it’s something that adults would not even think about, a seven-year-old child is wishing to go bowling. Lai‘kū’s interview was different in that it made me think back to when I was a child and the joy I found in the little things. Now putting your childhood self in Lai‘kū’s shoes it is both sad and scary to think about all the missed opportunities that he and many other children may be experiencing right now.
A Positive Case
At the start of the pandemic in the United States, New York was one of the major hotspots. Susie Liang and her husband both live in Brooklyn, and though she does not live in Hawai’i, her parents live on Oʻahu. Before the pandemic, she tried to visit as often as she could. However, at the time when Covid-19 began, their neighborhood was hit pretty hard. They did not physically leave their apartment for five months unless they were getting groceries. Since they both worked from home, they figured it was for the best. Unfortunately in March, Susie and her husband began to feel sick. Explaining her symptoms she said, “We felt like we had a cough and we had some symptoms but mild and then I mean we called for a test and they didn’t call us back until two weeks later which we thought we weren’t even gonna test positive because after two weeks it doesn’t make sense but I did [test positive] and so he had the same exact symptoms as me but he tested negative. So we deduced that he did have it.” Though her husband tested negative it was presumed that he also had Covid. This was the first interview I had where an interviewee had Covid, and in truth, it revealed to me how unpredictable this virus was. The interview with Susie was in July and even then she and her husband still had lingering symptoms of the virus, and there was not much she could do about it then rest as much as they could. They are doing much better now, but her story truly opened my eyes to how much Covid can devastate the body both physically and mentally.
The devastating effects of the pandemic also brought on other issues that have been brewing for a long time. The Black Lives Matter movement re-emerged just months into the pandemic and forced everyone to look again at the way society perceives race and culture in the U.S. As a result, the pandemic opened society’s eyes to face the issues that have all along been a problem. Ruth Marie Pulelehua Quirk was living with two black roommates at this time when Black Lives Matter and the pandemic came together. When the pandemic hit, her roommates went home to be with their families. However, her two roommates, who were black females opened her eyes to address race more in her life and to those around her. As she lived with them as all the protests over George Floyd’s murder were erupting across the world, she became more aware of her privilege and being more conscious of other races around her. Sometime after that, because she had underlying health issues, her two roommates moved out because they did not want to potentially transmit Covid to her. She shared her mana‘o with me addressing what she has learned from the pandemic and also how Black Lives Matter has transformed her thinking of race and privilege as we go through this tough time. Ruth shares with me what she has learned from the past year with the pandemic stating, “That’s what I’m learning, is that there’s way more bias in everything that we do. And it’s not necessarily political. It’s social, racial, cultural. And I can now see my white privilege bias in the way I view the world that I never saw before, that I probably would have never become aware of one until I live with two black women, young black women who are more than willing to tell me what I was doing wrong because I was willing to listen and apologize and talk to them, but, but also because of the pandemic, put us in a place where when racism boiled over, we’re all already paying attention at a very different level.”
Conclusion: A Time To Self-Reflect
What I have learned from these interviews is that human life is fragile. Family ties can shift overnight, and what the pandemic taught me is that every day we should be thankful for the small things we have. To be thankful and to be able to recognize not only our physical worth but also our worth for the future. Though we cannot change the past to prevent the pandemic, we can learn from personal stories to help cope and forge the future.
Covid-19 has opened up the discussion to addressing all the issues that have been accumulating over the years. To many, we have now understood the importance of our ‘āina and how we should not take for granted our oceans and what lies in between. As a society, Covid-19 has illuminated various social issues such as immigration, in better addressing our education system, in focusing on mental health. All these issues have now forced society to be more grateful for what we have and the fact that despite everything society will remain determined to come out of this pandemic stronger.
Stories will remain intact as they are vital for human growth. I now understand to cherish the stories that these individuals have shared with me and to remember that every life matters. This is the most important thing to remember as we are faced with this incredibly difficult pandemic.
I am originally from Southern California. I am majoring in Sociology, and I am a Senior. I am interested in Oral History with a focus on Hawaiian people. I was first interested when I took an Anthropology course that centered around Oral History interviews with people from Waialua, O’ahu.
Why is research important for Native Hawaiians?
Research is important for Native Hawaiians because it gives an opportunity and a voice to those that may not have had the chances before. Especially oral history research opens up the opportunity for Native Hawaiians to share their past experiences as a way to perpetuate their story.
What is one thing you’ve learned from your project?
My project was important because it gave people of Hawai’i an opportunity to share how Covid-19 has impact them. Last year was hard for all people, and what I have learned is that a great way to get through that is to open the discussion to allow others to share their experiences in the last year. I learned more about myself in regard to my personal life, and how meaningful life is to others who have had a difficult year.