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PBN editor laments government, media handling of COVID crisis

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There are many reason to complain about how Hawaii has dealt with the coronavirus threat to public health, and business journalist and columnist Kam Napier covered a lot of them in his Oct. 11, 2021, appearance on Keli’i Akina’s “Hawaii Together” program.

Napier is editor in chief of Hawaii’s leading business publication, Pacific Business News, and his comments concerned not only how state and county officials have been reacting to the threat, but also how his own industry, the media, has responded.

“Second only to government in my criticisms in [my] column have been criticisms of my own industry,” Napier said. “That’s nothing new. I’ve been grumbling about my own industry as long as I’ve been in it, because it’s such a privileged position to be in, as the institution is supposed to help the public know what’s going on.”

However, he said, “From the very beginning, there was this broad acceptance in the media of just the face-value explanation that there’s this pandemic, and because of the pandemic, we in government need to do X, Y, Z. I think that very early on, a lot of folks in media thought that their path to looking after their readers and asking the hard questions of government took the form of, ‘You say this is a crisis; so why aren’t you clamping down harder?’ — instead of asking, ‘Why are you choosing this policy instead of these others that we’re aware of?’ or ‘Why are you doing these actions when they’re different from other actions in past pandemics?’

“There’s been a lack of comparative analysis,” he said. “There’s been a lack of historical perspective. I think an outcome of this is that media and government have fed into each other in this feedback loop of increasing clampdown.”

Napier said he was heartened that the tide seems to be turning.

“I think it was Civil Beat or the [Honolulul Star-Advertiser that] recently had a big story talking about the lack of transparency. I’m glad to see that there’s finally some momentum building to demand some of these answers.

Watch the full interview to hear the rest of Napier’s trenchant thoughts and observations. A complete transcript is below.

10-11-21 Kam Napier with Keli‘i Akina on “Hawaii Together”

Keli‘i Akina: Aloha, everyone. Welcome to “Hawaii Together” on the ThinkTech Hawaii broadcast network. I’m Keli‘i Akina, your host and president of the Grassroot Institute of Hawaii.

Today’s topic is “Hawaii’s puzzling coronavirus rules.” As you know, there have been a multitude of government proclamations, mandates and shifting rules during the coronavirus pandemic. You may be wondering, “Have Hawaii officials been fully transparent about the data and the reasoning behind their actions?”

Maybe sometimes you’ve scratched your head. It’s been puzzling, to say the least.

To find the answer today, we’re going to talk with a good friend, Kam Napier, who’s the editor in chief of Pacific Business News. We’ll be discussing what the government could do to be more responsive to the public and more transparent.

I’d like to welcome Kam to the program now. Welcome. Glad to have you back with us today, Kam.

Kam Napier: Thanks for having me on the show. As always, a pleasure to be here chatting with you and all the Grassroot Institute fans. Hello, everybody.

Akina: We’d love to tap into your expertise and your wisdom. You are one of the most respected journalists here in the state. As I talk to people, your name comes up when I ask, “Who do you respect in terms of journalism?” You’ve certainly earned your place here.

Give me a little bit of your background. One of the things you do is, once in a while, address a controversial issue. How did you start doing that, and how did you get into journalism here?

Napier: Oh, my. I’ve been writing since I was a child. It just comes naturally to me. It’s how I learned about what’s going on in the world — to read and ask questions and then synthesize it.

I’ve been a columnist, I guess, by nature my whole career,  all the way back to The Cane Tassel at Waipahu High School in the ’80s …

Akina: How about that.

Napier: for the school paper. I was an English major at the University of Hawaii. I had no idea how to make a living as a writer, but one thing led to another. I was freelancing around town for publications, like Honolulu Magazine, Honolulu Weekly. A lot of people might remember The Weekly.

Akina: That’s right.

Napier: They’ve been around for a good long time. [I] ended up being on staff at Honolulu Magazine for about 19 years, the last eight as editor. I’ve been at PBN now since 2014.

Akina: How about that.

Napier: Time flies at PBN.

Akina: When people think of some of the magazines and newspapers you’ve worked for, the term, mainstream, comes to my mind. You’ve worked for some of the most well-read, well-respected instruments out there, and yet every now and then I’m delighted and surprised.You’ll come forth with some column that is filled with unconventional, even unpopular, analysis of a controversial issue. I’ve always wondered, Kam, how do you get away with it? [chuckles]

Napier: Oh, my goodness. I don’t know. I’ve been lucky to work in supportive environments that appreciate having a range of viewpoints.

I do worry about my industry overall in the long run, in terms of how much permission people in my industry feel to have dissenting opinions. I think overall it’s becoming much harder for folks. I’ve been very lucky all along. I try to do a lot of homework.

Each one of those columns, every week, I think, “Oh, my goodness, why did I want a weekly column? This is taking me hours to pull this together. I’m on deadline. I’m never going to be finished,” especially through the last 18 months of COVID, where there’s so much to research from the public policy standpoint.

I’ve tried to be comparative, looking at what Hawaii’s done in comparison to what other jurisdictions have done. There’s the epidemiology aspect. There’s the cultural aspect. There’s the industry, my industry aspect in terms of the reporting and how well it’s being done.

I’ve already wandered away from your question.

Akina: You mentioned the coronavirus era. Throughout it, we’ve been mystified at the reasons government officials have given to justify their actions. You’ve been a great student of this, so I wanted to ask you — and you’ve written on this — how transparent has our government been? What grade would you give them? How do you assess their transparency? What do you think is going on there?

Napier: I’ve been frustrated all along in the lack of transparency in terms of the data-driven public policy. It’s at the state level, as well as the county level.

When SafeAccess came along, I asked the City and County of Honolulu, with the new mayor, when they announced SafeAccess, with the new restrictions and requiring that a customer show their vaccine card or a negative test result … My question was, “How many cases, hospitalizations or deaths is this estimated to prevent? What’s the estimated economic impact? Who did the modeling for both of these that informed this decision?”

The answer back was that SafeAccess Honolulu was designed in collaboration with health, business and restaurant leaders as part of our collective efforts to aggressively counteract the surge of COVID-19 cases.

That’s not the same as telling me or, more importantly, my readers … I’m trying to gather this stuff so that all the business owners and business leaders, everyone interested in a good economy and [who] reads PBN, can learn from what I’m able to get or learn from what I’m not able to get.

There’s no modeling. They didn’t have any to share, and that’s not any different than the Caldwell administration.

[Mayor Kirk] Caldwell was quite irritated with me in an interview format, just like this, when I pressed for specific data.

It’s like, “Can you link a thing that you’re requiring of all of us to a specific outcome?” No one yet has been able to do that. Even a range — give us a guess, at least.

Akina: One of the problems I hear you stating is that it’s been difficult to get data in the first place. It’s been difficult on a more general level to get answers to the questions that you have as a journalist when you pose them to government agencies and to government leaders. How does that make you feel?

Napier: Personally, frustrated. I think it was Civil Beat or The [Honolulu Star-Advertiser that] recently had a big story talking about the lack of transparency. I’m glad to see that there’s finally some momentum building to demand some of these answers.

Akina: This certainly begs the question you were raising earlier about the basis on which government officials are making their decisions. What is your assessment so far? Can you tell, as a journalist, whether government has been looking at the data in an objective way and basing their decisions on data?

Napier: I think that they have been globally, not just in Hawaii. Anyone who is following this should read what’s going on all around the world. There’s been a fairly uniform approach towards dealing with this pandemic, towards having it be a very top-down from government, and very much handled as an economic intervention more than as a public health intervention.

This is a guess on my part. I’m not a fly on the wall in these meetings. I think that they’re looking at a shopping cart of public policy options, more so than data.

Akina: Let’s switch to the media now. Over the last year and a half, the coronavirus has been front and center in the media. What do you make of the quality of the media’s reporting about it?

Napier: Second only to government in my criticisms in the column have been criticisms of my own industry. That’s nothing new. I’ve been grumbling about my own industry as long as I’ve been in it, because it’s such a privileged position to be in, as the institution is supposed to help the public know what’s going on.

We do have access that the average citizen doesn’t have. When a politician knows that you represent tens of thousands or hundreds of thousands of citizens through your audience, they’ll answer your questions. Then, when they don’t, that’s also significant.

From the very beginning, I’ve noticed that — again, this is global; it’s not just Hawaii’s media; it’s the national media; it’s the media in other countries — from the very beginning, there was this broad acceptance in the media of just the face-value explanation, that there’s this pandemic, and because of the pandemic, we in government need to do X, Y, Z.

I think that very early on, a lot of folks in media thought that their path to looking after their readers and asking the hard questions of government took the form of, “You say, this is a crisis; so why aren’t you clamping down harder?” — instead of asking, “You say this is a crisis; so why are you choosing this policy instead of these others that we’re aware of?” or “Why are you doing these actions when they’re different from other actions in past pandemics?”

There’s been a lack of comparative analysis. There’s been a lack of historical perspective. I think an outcome of this is that media and government have fed into each other in this feedback loop of increasing clampdown.

Akina: That’s very interesting, focusing primarily on what to do rather than the rationale behind it; talking more about what is going on rather than asking the question, “Why is it going on?”

We’re bringing up all kinds of correlations, but never getting to the actual causality of what’s taking place.

Napier: There’s some interesting psychological tells in the language that we all use to describe this time that we’re in, when you see media or government or even everyday people you talk to, and they say, “Because of COVID, X, Y, Z.”

COVID, it’s just a virus; it doesn’t make any decisions for us. Only humans can make decisions about what humans are doing. If we were being more complete in our understanding of what we were going through, we would more often be saying, “Because of COVID policies, this has happened, and that has happened, and this was closed, and that’s open, and that’s not open, and this is being asked of us.”

No one says, “Because of COVID policies …” It’s very rare to see that formulation.

I understand that it’s extra work to add that word in. At PBN, we probably aren’t doing it as often as we probably should. It’s easy in shorthand to say, “because COVID.” But, really, it’s, “Because COVID policies.”

Akina: Kam, today, I was reading in the Honolulu Star-Advertiser the following statement, “Flu proves deadlier than COVID.” What it said is that the flu and pneumonia have killed over 800 people this season.

When I read that, I was shocked for a minute because that hasn’t really been in the headlines. The number 800 for this season for flu and pneumonia alone dwarfs the number of deaths from the coronavirus, which has constantly been in the media. What are your thoughts about this?

Napier: I’m a little flummoxed. Very early on in the pandemic, when I was trying to put the threat of coronavirus into a historical context, I was using state Department of Health influenza surveillance reports to point out that every single year there’s X number of fatalities in Hawaii from a communicable viral disease. Pneumonia is bacterial, but it typically starts with you catching some upper respiratory viral infection.

If we were to panic every year in the exact same way we’re panicking now, we would never have an economy; we would never leave our home.

Not too long after that, those weekly reports vanished from the state Department of Health website. They stayed gone for the longest time.

I haven’t had a chance to look yet to see if those weekly reports have returned to the website, and that’s what Star-Advertiser was basing their article on.

My gut reaction was, “This is interesting to see.” I read the piece, and I can’t quite tell if it’s an attempt to return to perspectives or if it’s softening us up for the idea that we need to keep acting like this now because of the flu every year. Where are we going with this comparison?

One of my concerns has been: If we lower the threshold for what justifies this all-encompassing response to a problem to do something to a level of threat that we used to just accept as normal, then we’re inviting in a permanent state of crisis. I guess that’s my reaction to it.

Akina: That’s something worth pondering. We’re going to take a quick break now. My guest today is Kam Napier, editor in chief of Pacific Business News. We’ll be right back. Don’t go away, because when we come back, I’m going to ask Kam a question about UH football.

[INTERMISSION]

Akina: We’re back, and you’re still here. Thank you very much. I’m Keli‘i Akina. You’re watching “Hawaii Together” on the ThinkTech Hawaii broadcast network.

My guest today is Kam Napier. We’re thinking about the puzzling way in which government justifies what it’s been doing during the coronavirus pandemic.

One reason happens to be with UH football. Apparently, our mayor of Honolulu and our governor have reversed their original stance and are now opening up the stadium so that some spectators can come in, which is a great thing.

I’m all for that. I’m excited about that, and I do think our Rainbow Warriors need to have an audience. But when I sit back and I try to answer the question, “Why? What was the data? Did something change that I didn’t see?” I’m a bit puzzled about this.

Kam, what are your thoughts about that?

Napier: To me, it fits into a larger pattern that’s been consistent from the very beginning of the policy response, which is seemingly arbitrary distinctions made between essential and non-essential businesses.

I wrote about it a bit when SafeAccess was announced, that it’s very strange that a bar is dangerous, but a bank is not. A restaurant will kill you, but grocery shopping is totally okay. I think a lot of people have seen the weirdness of this.

This was a big source of tension earlier in the pandemic, when a lot of local businesses were essentially shut down, but major corporate stores were declared essential and allowed to stay open and, apparently, in great safety.

We did not see a wave of deaths of Walmart employees or shoppers, or Costco employees or shoppers, which then, if you observe that, you might start to wonder, “Why are we making these distinctions, if things are apparently fairly safe for most people most of the time?”

Akina: It’s like the ineffability of the changing goal posts. Originally, we were going to “flatten the curve.” Then we got to the place where we were eager to get through these different tiers: one, two, three, four. We discovered, at the end of tier four, there was a tier five.

We’ve all been rooting for the day when we would get 70% immunization, and that would change things. Apparently, that’s not the goal post’s position any longer. What are your thoughts about these shifting goalposts?

Napier: That’s been an enormous frustration for a lot of people. It’s been difficult for the PBN readers. Like I said, they’re business owners and business leaders. The uncertainty is as much a problem as the restrictions. 

There’s a specific, direct connection between saying a restaurant could only have 50% capacity [and] a restaurant’s revenues; that’s almost mathematical precision.

There’s a broader uncertainty of the moving goal posts that are changing regulations, where it makes it very difficult for businesses to plan whether or not they should bring employees back, for example; whether or not they should be ordering more supplies or fewer supplies; whether or not they should even stay in business.

We spoke to [the] head of [the] Kailua Chamber of Commerce as part of a panel discussion recently. His business — Robert Reich — his day job, he helps people with financial planning for their businesses, their exit strategies. He’s got clients that are telling him, “Look, I want out faster. I know I had a plan to exit my business pre-COVID on a certain timetable, but I want out much faster now.” That broader uncertainty has been a big challenge for business in Hawaii.

Akina: Certainly. With respect to what the goal really is, it makes it very difficult to keep score if it’s not clear.

As you know, our governor has, in recent press venues, been vacillating between being highly optimistic about the possibility that we can open up a little bit sooner to being pessimistic, even making mention that there might need to be a universal vaccine mandate.

Yet, when pressed, he says, “It’s not known yet what the metric will be by which we make that decision.” Your thoughts about that?

Napier: I think that’s why a lot of people have a hard time with mandates.

When there’s that much uncertainty, a lot of people would rather government be upfront about the uncertainty and say, “Here’s what we think is your safest course of action, but we leave it to you to make your own decisions.” 

It’s very difficult for people to accept mandates that seem untethered, especially when you keep in mind that we were still operating under emergency powers.

We still don’t really have a true functional democracy at the moment. I guess the Legislature can pass laws on anything, but COVID, when it comes to the public health emergency, we’re still very much at the mercy of unitary decisions. 

To get public buy-in, you’ve got to be a little more persuasive and less coercive, I think, if you want to be an effective public policy leader. That’s a whole other thing to talk about vaccine mandates. It’s all been very strange.

Akina: We’ve seen in the recent past our healthcare system overwhelmed under the surge in demand. That has often been put forth as the main reason that government officials have opted for various restrictions. It’s based upon the limitations of our healthcare system. One of the things that we’ve exposed at the Grassroot Institute is that that was the condition of our healthcare system even before the pandemic.

Napier: Right.

Akina: It’s nothing new. It’s the result of various government regulations, certificate of demand, certificate-of-need regulations, the regulatory environment around practicing a medical business, and so forth.

Why do you think that that is used as the main reason for the lockdowns, rather than something that we actually solve?

Napier: I think, in the short term, it seems much easier to control all of us than to overhaul an industry. That’s one answer that comes to mind.

To be fair, on the previous question, the delta variant seemed very different. It was behaving very differently from the original version. It’s not surprising that some goal posts would move in response to that. That seems safe. I think, in the short term, that’s the explanation.

Just like with two weeks to flatten the curve, it is much easier to order all of us to stay home, or to operate our businesses at half capacity or what have you, or vaccine mandates, than it is to will a larger and better industry into shape.

There are things that are just outright missing in the workforce development picture in Hawaii.

I recently interviewed Kathy Raethel. She’s retired recently as president and CEO of Castle Medical Center. We were talking about workforce development. She pointed out there’s no training in Hawaii for a physical therapist, for example. It’s just one medical specialty.

Hawaii kids go to the mainland for school for that, and maybe they stay, because they found a cheaper place to live and more professional opportunities. In any case, they have to leave for the training, and then we have to entice them back.

I have been puzzled at why, nationwide, there hasn’t been more of this emergency-crisis mindset applied to beefing up healthcare, [rather] than to controlling the broad general public or controlling the economy as a response to the pandemic. Eighteen months is a long time.

I mentioned in my column this week, if we’re talking about the federal government responding to a wartime emergency, how many submarines the Portsmouth Navy Yard could crank out at the beginning of World War II and at the end of World War II?

When it matters, the government can make production accelerate. I haven’t really seen a national effort commensurate to that or comparable to that in terms of increasing healthcare capacity. I don’t know why. I don’t know why that is.

Akina: Certainly, increasing our healthcare capacity would be on the top of things to do, as we prepare for potential future pandemics.

We’ve just got about 30 seconds left, Kam. What could our government have done better? What should we do in the future, just real quickly?

Napier: Real quickly, more should have been voluntary guidelines. I think not just because it’s ethically right, but because it’s more effective as public health policies.

As soon as people feel bullied, then they react to the force that they feel coming at them, whether or not it’s the best health decision they could make. I think the mandates are counterproductive in that regard.

I think the public, we all could do a better job of asking better questions about what’s going on around us, rather than just jumping onto the drama of the situation. I think that’s been a big factor in what’s been going on for the last 18 months.

Akina: Kam, thank you very much. Great information today. I hope people will continue to read you in Pacific Business News. Kam Napier, editor in chief, delighted to have you on board today. 

To everyone else, until next time. We’ll see you on “Hawaii Together” on the ThinkTech Hawaii broadcast network. I’m Keli‘i Akina, signing off now. Aloha.

 

 

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