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The Historical Trauma of Infection

By Dr. Landon Opunui, ND

The island of Molokai has a long-standing history with infectious diseases. Molokai is known around the world for Kalaupapa’s history and the enduring spirit of all those affected by Hansen’s disease. Although our current pandemic is caused by a virus as opposed to a bacterial microorganism, there are parallels that bridge this infectious disease’s past with the present.

The first wave of imported diseases came to Hawaii with Capt. James Cook in 1778 when his sailors introduced tuberculosis and sexually transmitted diseases. About a quarter century later, the first recorded epidemic occurred in 1804 when the cholera outbreak known as maʻi okuʻu killed more than 15,000. This was soon followed by influenza (1820s), mumps (1839), measles and whooping cough (1848-1849), and smallpox (1853).

This succession of deadly epidemics leads scholars to believe that as much as 90 percent of the Native Hawaiian population was tragically reduced over a 50-year period.

The Hawaiian Kingdom was forced to respond aggressively by mandating vaccinations for certain diseases, collecting health data and instituting a Board of Health in 1850, long before any such government agency was created in the United States.

There are also historical examples of shutdowns. In 1836, Kuhina Nui Kaʻahumanu II (Elizabeth Kinaʻu) ordered all ships entering Hawaiian waters to be boarded and inspected for smallpox. Similarly, during the 1881 smallpox epidemic, Princess Liliʻuokalani ordered a shelter in place, quarantine of infected people and the closing of ports. This response was even more intrusive than our current government’s loosely enforced 14-day travel quarantine mandate.

The greatest historical action, however, was the passage of “An Act to Prevent the Spread of Leprosy” in 1865 by King Kamehameha V. Led by the Kingdom of Hawaii, under pressure from Western advisors, those suspected of being infected with Hansen’s disease were condemned to a life of virtual imprisonment on the Kalawao peninsula to prevent the spread of the disease, which was believed to be highly contagious and without a cure.

Hansen’s disease was also referred to as Maʻi Pake (Chinese sickness) because of the disease’s association with Chinese people, who people noted to have had the disease or who may have been more familiar with it because they had seen it in their own country. This has a frightening resemblance to our current COVID-19 pandemic as President Donald Trump has publicly referred to coronavirus as the “Chinese virus.”

Like most infectious diseases that spread throughout Hawaii, Native Hawaiians have suffered the most. One out of every 39 Native Hawaiians (2.6 percent) contracted Hansen’s disease, while non-Hawaiians had a rate of one in 1,847. In total over the decades, more than 8,500 men, women and children living throughout the Hawaiian islands were diagnosed with Hansen’s disease and exiled to the colony.

The forcible separation of individuals from family, friends, communities and places resulted in significant trauma that persists to this day. Although different, COVID-19 will undeniably leave a wake of destruction in its path because of the numerous impacts that it has had on nearly every household around the globe.


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