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The real enemy of aloha is uncertainty

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As Hawaii’s coronavirus predicament drags on, the real enemy of aloha has become uncertainty. It is at the root of our economic woes, policy disagreements and growing cultural divides.

Why are some businesses treated differently than others? When will we be able to return to normal? Are any of these restrictions really saving lives? How long will it take tourism to recover? Will another coronavirus variant spur more restrictions? How long will we be in a state of emergency?

Even the governor cannot give definitive answers to these questions. The continued uncertainty is hurting local businesses and undermining public trust in our government.

This week on my “Hawaii Together” program, I interviewed Kam Napier, editor in chief of Pacific Business News. As one of the state’s leading journalists, Napier has unique insight into the way that COVID-19 has affected our state. Through his conversations with local business owners, he has seen how the constant shifting of the re-opening goal posts has destroyed or crippled many sectors of our economy.

“The uncertainty is as much a problem as the restrictions,” Napier said. “Changing regulations … 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.”

He said some business owners who had “exit strategies” before the lockdowns are now asking their financial planners to help them get out even sooner, because of the uncertainty.

The general public has been similarly affected.

“I think that’s why a lot of people have a hard time with mandates,” Napier said. “When there’s that much uncertainty, … it’s very difficult for people to accept mandates that seem untethered.”

Much of the frustration, he said, is due to the government’s lack of transparency. As a journalist, he has had difficulty getting data from the state Department of Health, and other government agencies as well.

He said that when the City and County of Honolulu announced its Safe Access program,“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?’”

In response, he received vague assurances that the policies were designed with the help of experts.

During our conversation, Napier didn’t spare his own profession. He noted that the media — local, national and international — have too willingly accepted at face value the representations of COVID-19 policies by the government leaders who devised them.

Instead of asking questions about why certain policies are being pursued over others, the media have simply asked why the crisis has not provoked a stronger government response.

“There’s been a lack of comparative analysis,” said Napier. “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.”

Which gets back to the issue of uncertainty. If it is being fed by a lack of transparency and lack of analysis, what is the solution?

My view is that we need more accountability and clarity in government policymaking. That means restoring the constitutional balance of powers in our government and giving the people a voice again.

Foremost, our state legislators need to reassert their role in governance and fix the state’s emergency-powers statute, to make sure this perpetual state of “emergency” and uncertainty never happens again.

But “we the people” have a role to play as well. Bearing in mind that civility and reason are our most effective tools, we must persuade our leaders to do the right thing.

And we must ask the right questions. As Napier said, “I think we all could do a better job of asking better questions about what’s going on around us. … I think that’s been a big factor in what’s been going on for the last 18 months.”
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This commentary was Keli’i Akina’s weekly “President’s Corner” column for Oct. 16, 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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