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Pandemic shows need for Native Hawaiians, Pacific Islanders participation in census

Resource shortages affected by the census are being felt in the community now.

For decades, government officials have struggled to accurately count Native Hawaiians and Pacific Islanders nationwide. Members have been mislabeled or gone uncounted because of an unwillingness or inability to participate in the census.

Every 10 years the U.S. Census Bureau undertakes a massive effort to count the American people. The results allocate seats for Congress as well as billions of dollars in federal funds for hospitals, schools, transportation and public assistance programs.

With the added challenges presented by the coronavirus pandemic, an undercounting of Native Hawaiians and Pacific Islanders could be even more acute in the 2020 census. As a result, political leaders fear the small ethnic minority runs the risk of remaining underrepresented and being denied public funds and resources.

"We are underrepresented in the census, and as a result of that we are underrepresented in the distribution of resources," Kuhio Lewis, who serves as the Native Hawaiians and Pacific Islanders Complete Count Committee chair, told ABC News.

A Post Enumeration Survey (PES) is conducted after the census count to provide information to improve the coverage of future censuses. According to the 2000 and 2010 PES results, "Some in this population have a profound distrust of government or language barriers that have negatively influenced their participation in the past." In 2010, Hawaii had a self-response rate of 64.1%, according to the Census Bureau's response tracker, compared to the national rate of 74%.

Mistrust has developed from the American government overthrowing the Hawaiian Kingdom, said Lewis, and it is still fresh for many islanders.

"It's not that far away. My grandmother was here in that era where our queen was overthrown," said Lewis. "And I was raised by my grandmother."

Lewis works to educate as well as build trust between locals who don't self-respond and enumerators who have to knock on their doors. Due to the confidential nature of the survey, census workers must go to these homes alone. He hopes to send out local NHPIs to hard-to-reach households before the enumerators visit.

"When the government comes asking for your personal information, it's like what do they need that for," he said. "Someone hired from the outside to knock on their door -- it's just not going to work."

One third of NHPIs live in hard-to-count areas. While the Census Bureau employs the help of independent groups that are comprised of various trusted voices in the NHPI community to help with outreach, person-to-person contact is especially difficult right now, as communities across the country still struggle to get a handle on the spread of the coronavirus.

April 1 had been designated as "census day" in the state of Hawaii, with extensive programming planned in the hope of conducting a fair and more complete count of all residents. But in early March, as the threat of the coronavirus became more apparent, Hawaii Gov. David Ige began implementing social distancing measures. And, on March 18, field operations were halted by the Census Bureau nationwide.

Amid the coronavirus pandemic, key resource shortages directly affected by the census are being felt throughout the community.

According to a study from the University of Hawaii at Mānoa John A. Burns School of Medicine, Native Hawaiians and Pacific Islanders have been hit hard by the coronavirus. It suggested that there are as many as 217.7 COVID-19 cases per 100,000 in Native Hawaiian and Pacific Islander residents in at least five states -- Hawaii, California, Oregon, Utah and Washington -- compared to the national rate of 60.5 hospitalizations per 100,000 according to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention. The rates within these states are greater than those reported for African Americans and Hispanics/Latinos who the CDC reports at 92.3 and 74.3, respectively.

The University of Hawaii surmises that these numbers are largely due to the many inequities that exist within these communities, including: higher rates of chronic disease, a workforce largely comprised of essential workers, lower wages, as well as a disproportionate number of incarcerated and homeless people.

Randall Akee, an associate professor of public policy at UCLA, told ABC News, "I've seen most clearly in the last two to three months the vital importance of as accurate as possible population counts, especially for small populations, like NHPI. Because without that, it may potentially throw off our public health figures."

Additionally, more problems are likely to arise as the pandemic continues.

"Unfortunately, it's going to have other issues for us. We're seeing a lot of mental health issues, depression, substance use and abuse, even interpersonal violence," Keawe'aimoku Kaholokula, professor and chair of the Department of Native Hawaiian Health at the University of Hawaii at Manoa, told ABC News.

"The next decade, it's going to be really important for us," Kaholokula added. "We need people to recognize that our concerns need to be addressed and recognized by our leaders, (so) we can close the gap in these health inequities we see across the U.S." The Census Bureau will begin revving up field operations in June and has pushed back their self-response date deadline from July 31 to Oct. 31.

For the NHPI community getting counted is more important than ever, Lewis told ABC News.

"We stand to lose billions of dollars," said Lewis. "Elevating our voices is so critical to the bigger picture in the survival of prosperity. Let's get counted. Let's make sure that we get our fair share."

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