Economic Recovery in the Time of COVID

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Our friend UH Law Professor Ken Lawson frequently opines on what he calls “the Knucklehead Gang,” referring to Gov. David Ige, Mayor Kurt Caldwell, Ige’s Chief of Staff Linda Chu Takayama, President and CEO of the Hawaii Lodging and Tourism Association Muffi Hanneman and their colleagues.

He is so right.

The fact is, the state has been talking up diversification from tourism for decades. Talk, talk, talk. No action. Why? Because it was the low-hanging fruit – even though there has been decreasing returns on investment – so that all the increase in tourists has not generated anything new in the economy. But it has begun to destroy the environment as it rapes our resources.

Perhaps the impetus to change must be pain. Is this enough pain for you? The small businesses that are dying – the ones that serve the people who live here – THOSE are the businesses that will save us. It is not the giant hotel and restaurant chains or banks and designer stores. It’s the places that provide us with the things we really need, like a haircut or a pair of shorts.

Monday’s announcement of the “Hawaii Economic & Community Navigator” Alan Oshima by the Office of the Governor was a ridiculous dog-and-pony show.

This guy, Oshima, may be a great guy, but he had nothing to say in about a thousand words. He is the recently retired President and CEO of Hawaiian Electric Co. What does he know about viruses? What does he know about small businesses?

The thing is, HECO has gouged the public for decades. Their prices reflect the fact that they are the only game in town for the electric utilities and that they have been entirely ineffective in gaining any substantial traction in using local sources of alternative energy that can bring down the cost of electricity. Instead, this is a company that has profited on its exclusiveness.

No. This can’t be the guy. But he is.

He is joined by Mark Mugiishi, president and CEO of HMSA; House Speaker Scott Saiki; Sen. President Ron Kouchi; Queen’s Health Systems CEO Jill Hoggard Green (no relation to Josh Green); Hawaii Pacific Health CEO Ray Vara; UH School of Nursing dean Mary Boland; CEO First Hawaiian Bank Bob Harrison and CEO Bank of Hawaii Peter Ho.

Doesn’t this sound like an “Old Boys” network? Well, as a matter of fact, Oshima has laid out his priorities, starting with how to spend the $4 billion in federal funds that are coming to Hawaii. Guess what he named first? ENERGY. HEALTH CARE. FINANCIAL SERVICES. EDUCATION. That is called self-dealing. None of those guys wants to see their retirement depleted, right?

What about those small, locally-owned resident-facing businesses?

Forget about it! That’s the 61% of small businesses that drive the island’s economy and employ its people – you and me, who are currently out of work, awaiting for our first unemployment check. Right?

The real news, as is usually the case, was elegantly delivered by the king of Diplomacy – Lt. Gov. Josh Green. We had only four cases of COVID-19 yesterday, on Maui and on The Big Island. None were on Oahu.

“It is phenomenal, what’s being accomplished,” said Green. “The big news is that we’ve had zero cases on Oahu today, which is something actually to be astounded by. Your efforts are paying off, and I know that your sacrifice is immense.”

Green reported that, with the total number of cases at 584, 423 have recovered, or 72.4%; which gives Hawaii the second lowest mortality rate in the nation, behind Wyoming. there have been 24,543 tests performed, among the highest per capita in the nation.

Without the 14-day quarantine for travelers to the islands and between the islands, and the restrictions on residents, Green said that modeling shows there would have been 4,479 deaths by mid-April.

“This would have been catastrophic,” he intoned. “We’re still not out of the woods yet. There’s obvious concerns still. I know everybody wants to get back to normal. COVID-19 is bound to be a part of our lives for some time. Please don’t lose hope. Know that you’ve done something quite extraordinary,” he said.

Monday evening, Green was once again online with people in Waianae for a Town Hall. During the broadcast, he gave out his cell number and encouraged people to call with their concerns. He is ubiquitous, which is fortunate, because he is a trusted figure who helps to relieve the communal anxiety caused by the COVID-19 quarantine measures by talking about facts, with compassion.

As concerned as many are about quarantine, we are also concerned about opening up and becoming vulnerable to a second wave of infection. In the 1918 Spanish Flu Pandemic, the second wave had morphed into a particularly viral strain, killing an estimated 50-100 million people worldwide.

Opening too much, too soon, will ultimately, destroy our tourism industry. No one will come for a long time if we become the place where people go to get infected with a deadly disease where they don’t have the medical capacity to care for such an outbreak. Patience.

“I think it is fair to say the process to open up is beginning and specifics will be coming,” he wrote in an email. “The Gov said ‘stay tuned’ and we are working with him to choose the approach to emerge from home quarantine, to use the parks and beaches and ultimately, to phase in business openings. The largest question remains of how to restore tourism, specifically how much caution do we need to apply to incoming travelers? Tests for all? Clearance through history and exam?”

These are the questions that should be top of mind. We have done a good job and we should be very grateful for LG’s persistence and leadership, facing down Caldwell and Ige. Hopefully, he can steer these “knuckleheads” down a path that will keep us safe and preserve our island’s health.

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  1. […] Economic Recovery in the Time of COVID – He is ubiquitous, which is fortunate, because he is a trusted figure who helps to relieve the communal anxiety caused by the COVID-19 quarantine measures by talking about facts, with compassion. As. […]