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Two weeks ago, my biggest worries concerned managing my classes, having three dance practices a week, organizing events for the Harvard College Women’s Center, and writing this column. But two weeks ago, I didn’t know that I would be packing up my things and leaving Harvard for the rest of the semester. I didn’t know that I would be getting stuck in Hawaii for a week with my older brother, scrambling to move my cousin out of her apartment with the threat of her being out of a job soon and unable to cover rent. And I didn’t know that all three of us would be flying to American Samoa together with the fear that we could be carrying a deadly virus back home, threatening the lives of, not only our families, but our entire community. To say that the things I was worried about two weeks ago now seem small and insignificant is quite the understatement.
In fact, as I sit quarantined in an apartment building, separated from my little brother, parents, grandparents, uncles, aunties, and cousins, I can barely summon enough concentration to carry on with classes over Zoom or even write clear sentences for this piece.
All I can think about every day is whether or not I might be carrying the virus. What if I’ve somehow already transmitted it to my family? When my little brother pulls up a plastic chair to sit outside and talk to me and my older brother through the glass window every day, all I can do is count down the days until I can give him a big hug. But when will I be able to guarantee that that is even a safe thing for me to do? Without the ability to test for COVID-19 in American Samoa, there’s no way for anyone here to know whether they might be carrying the virus — making social distancing all the more imperative.
All it takes is one person. That was all it took in 1918, when the influenza epidemic was brought onto Samoan shores and wiped out a fifth of our people. That was all it took with the measles outbreak just a couple months ago that took the lives of so many of our children, many of whom did not get to see past the age of five. And that’s all it’ll take with COVID-19 if we’re not careful.
Without local testing looking like a realistic possibility for another two months and only one hospital on the whole island with the ability to accommodate ten coronavirus patients in a special quarantine facility, it’s just like what chief executive of the LBJ Medical Center John Faumina said in his interview with NBC News this week - “One is too many for us.” With major barriers to testing and extremely limited capacities for providing quarantine and healthcare for COVID-19 patients throughout the Pacific, Pacific Islanders and those residing in the Pacific are some of the most vulnerable populations and cannot afford to take this lightly.
I know social distancing can be a hard ask, especially in small, tight-knit communities such as ours. Growing up, the screen door in my house might have been able to keep out all of the mosquitos but stood no chance against my cousins, as we’d all be running around hiding from our parents calling us to do feau. Large family gatherings, whether for weekly Sunday toana’i or yet another fa’alavelave, are central to our way of life. Every brother, sister, cousin, aunty, uncle, parent, and grandparent is always met with a warm embrace and a kiss on the cheek, never a handshake (let alone an elbow bump). Our community is a family, and in times of hardship, we are taught to come together, to hold each other and take care of one another - not to stay in isolation.
Now more than ever we must hold and take care of each other, but the best way to do that is from a distance. Every day, when I see my grandma creep near where we’re being quarantined to say hi or when my best friend (or sister rather) comes by to drop off food for me, it only gets harder. But if our community is truly our family, we must sacrifice the hugs and kisses from our grandparents, the late-night gatherings in the faleo’o talking story with all the cousins, and the ifa sessions with all our aunties after toana’i. Because it’s not even just our families’ lives at stake. It’s the lives of our people — the life of our histories and our traditions. So please, let’s hold each other from a distance, because it’s the only way we’ll get through this.
Gabrielle T. Langkilde ’21, a Crimson Editorial editor, is a joint concentrator in Sociology and Studies of Women, Gender, and Sexuality in Eliot House. Her column appears on alternate Fridays.
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