State law never meant to create indefinite emergency

With the state awash in rumors about new COVID-19 restrictions — or even another lockdown — we are witnessing the breakdown in trust that occurs when there is not enough transparency in government decision-making.

For more than a year, we have been living under a different kind of governance, with our activities and freedoms sharply defined by the emergency orders issued by the governor and mayors.

There is no oversight system. No mechanism for the public to voice questions or concerns about the tier system, the lockdowns or the possibility of new restrictions.

Instead, it has become a guessing game, where we try to interpret the newest rules or cope with the fact that some of those rules, like requiring proof of vaccination for bar patrons, are unworkable in the real world.

The best example might be the 70% vaccination goal required for us to reach the “no more tiers” reopening level. On Friday, the state Department of Health reported that 70% of people who are eligible to take the vaccine are now fully vaccinated.

So that should be it, right? We’ve hit the goal and can fully reopen. It’s time to celebrate our vaccination rate.

Or is it?

A vaccination rate of 70% of eligible adults is sufficient for President Joe Biden, but apparently that isn’t the benchmark Hawaii is following to end the COVID-19 restrictions. Gov. David Ige has set the vaccination goal at 70% of all Hawaii residents, including children under 12, who are ineligible for the vaccine.

That means that even though we’ve hit the goal used by the president and many other states, Hawaii’s vaccination rate is only 60%, when you look at the population as a whole — not just at adults eligible to get the vaccine. In other words, in order to satisfy Gov. Ige’s requirement of 70% of the total population, 82% of residents over 12 would need to be fully vaccinated.

The big question is “Why?” Why is the vaccination goal so different? Why say it is 70% when it’s really 82%? Why tie the reopening strategy to vaccination rates at all?

Above all, why is the decision-making process so opaque? The tier system and emergency orders affect every aspect of our lives, and yet we know very little about who is involved in decision-making, how those decisions are made or what information and expertise is being relied on while making them.

In a democracy, lawmaking and governance are supposed to happen in the full sight of the public, not behind closed doors. Without that necessary transparency, the people lose trust in their leaders. Without transparency, there is a greater opportunity for corruption and backroom dealing.

It is increasingly clear that the state’s emergency management law was never meant to deal with an emergency like the COVID-19 pandemic. It was created to deal with a temporary situation, requiring quick and decisive action. It was not intended to create an indefinite state of emergency, with no accountability and no check on the executive’s power.

So far, the Legislature has not addressed the failures of the emergency management law. At a minimum, the law should be reformed to restore the balance of powers, guarantee greater transparency and end the possibility of infinite lockdowns.

Let us hope that the Legislature returns to the issue in the next session and gives the people a bigger voice in the way Hawaii handles future emergencies.

This commentary was Keli’i Akina’s weekly “President’s Corner” column for July 31, 2021. If you would like to have his columns emailed to you on a regular basis, please call 808-864-1776 or email info@grassrootinstitute.org.

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