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Big Island Marshallese Rally to Prevent COVID-19

Courtesy of Mackson Sam
The Marshallese community in West Hawai'i distributes masks during the COVID-19 pandemic.

Over on the west side of the Big Island, a growing number of Marshallese citizens are mobilizing to keep their community safe from COVID-19.

Keauhou resident Mackson Sam grew worried back in April when he learned five fellow Marshallese families were part of a COVID-19 cluster in Kona that infected over 30 people. 

Sam was afraid he?d contract the virus and even worse he?d pass it on to his family and friends.

West Hawai?i is home to a tight-knit community of several thousand Marshallese citizens.

“It?s just that people are scared. We can see that they are just scared because they say if you get (COVID-19), you die. It?s just a misinterpretation of the information,” says Meetu Kelen, a community health worker at the West Hawai?i Community Health Center. 

The pandemic has kept her busy distributing flyers in her native Marshallese tongue and educating her community about COVID-19. 

“Marshallese helping Marshallese, I think that helps because we already have that trust. They know us. So they can relate,” says Kelen. “It?s not just us coming and ordering them like, ?Do this, do this.?” 

Kelen says some of the biggest challenges have been socio-economic in nature. 

“A lot of our families live in affordable housing, which are not built for this COVID-19,” says Kelen. “Because the guidelines say you have to socially distance, which is a little bit ridiculous because that?s impossible with us.”

Many Marshallese were also deemed essential workers under the pandemic, says Metuu?s husband Charles. He?s vice president of the Big Island Marshallese Community Association.

“These Marshallese that were infected by COVID-19, they got sick from working and not because they were traveling,” says Kelen. “They were working. They need to work to make money.”

The cluster originated at a Kailua-Kona McDonald restaurant and slowly spread through employees, including the five Marshallese families. 

Pacific Islanders are experiecing one of the highest rates of COVID-19 in Hawai?i, according to the state Heatlh Department. Lilo Keju believes Marshallese culture has a lot to do with it.

“Culture mandates that we stick together. And culture mandates that we help each other and visit tutu and help her out,” says Keju. “It would be obvious why it would spread so rapidly among us.” 

Keju helped form a Marshallese women?s group called Woddejippel. They?ve sewn masks, organized food drives, and helped test and screen for COVID-19. 

“We can?t do away with our culture because that would be doing away with who we are,” says Keju. “But we can educate ourselves like, for the time being, you have to wear masks. For the time being, you have to wear gloves. And for the time being, you have to stay home!”

It's a temporary disruption, Keju hopes, to a long and propserous future for Big Island?s Marshallese community. 

Kuʻuwehi Hiraishi is a general assignment reporter at Hawaiʻi Public Radio. Her commitment to her Native Hawaiian community and her fluency in ʻōlelo Hawaiʻi has led her to build a de facto ʻōiwi beat at the news station. Send your story ideas to her at
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