There was certainly a lot to fear last week. And this week, for very different reasons, seems just as frightening.
Hurricane Madeline was coming! Then Hurricane Lester was right behind! Two hurricanes bearing down on the state!
Then nothing much happened (though high surf from Lester did wash a bunch of debris onto Baldwin Beach, closing it for a few days). Sure was scary, though, thinking that two powerful storms would batter Maui in the span of just a few days. It was a fear that county officials made explicitly clear.
“[T]the probability that Maui County will experience tropical storm-force winds is significantly higher with Hurricane Lester than it was with Madeline,” said Maui County Emergency Management Officer Anna Foust in a Sept. 2 county news release. “We are asking everyone to take this storm seriously, and to stay off the roads after about 9 p.m. Friday when winds may begin picking up. Now is the time to finish getting your emergency supplies together, and be prepared to shelter in-place for up to 24 hours as Lester passes through.”
Lester was already on track to skirt by Hawaii when Foust made that statement, but hey, it’s better to be safe than sorry, right? That’s the prudent thing to do–hope for the best, but plan for the worst (though it was nice to see County Council chairperson Mike White defy all the government closures at noon on Friday, Sept. 2 and hold an afternoon County Council hearing). Even now, with Madeline and Lester long gone, county officials are still telling us to beware.
“Hurricane season isn’t over yet although I am pleased that this storm passed us by without too many ill effects,” said Managing Director Keith Regan in a Sept. 4 news release. “We must remain vigilant always, because the next storm may not be so gentle.”
Not sure what scares me more about that statement–the call for an eternal vigilance or the fact that it came from Regan, who in Mayor Alan Arakawa’s absence has been “acting mayor.”
The statement is a not-so-gentle reminder that we truly live in an Age of Terror, when it’s incumbent on all of us to remain prepared at all times to face a whole manner of dangers.
My sensitivity on this issue springs in part from reading a magnificent 2008 essay by Eula Biss in the Believer Magazine this weekend. Titled “No-Man’s-Land,” the essay is largely an examination of the great 19th century American writer Laura Ingalls Wilder (author of Little House on the Prairie) and the terribly racist paranoia that infected the “pioneers” around her. But it also makes clear that we hardly live in more relaxed times today.
“One of the paradoxes of our time is that the War on Terror has served mainly to reinforce a collective belief that maintaining the right amount of fear and suspicion will earn one safety,” Biss wrote. “Fear is promoted by the government as a kind of policy. Fear is accepted, even among the best-educated people in this country, even among the professors with whom I work, as a kind of intelligence. And inspiring fear in others is often seen as neighborly and kindly, instead of being regarded as what my cousin recognized it for—a violence.”
We delude ourselves if we think Donald Trump’s campaign for president–built of nothing but a white man’s fear of women foreigners, non-whites and intellectuals–is the only expression of this fear. Back in the early 1990s, when I was studying political science at college, it became quite clear that the totality of American foreign policy has always been an expression of terror–a way to control the population here through fear of Native Americans, Mexicans, communists, Arabs, etc.
This trickles down to the local level. Governments of all sizes know instinctively that nothing happens until people get scared. The whole situation surrounding Maui Memorial Medical Center (MMMC) exemplifies this.
The fight over the future of Maui County’s hospitals has been well-reported in this publication and others throughout the state. Last year, the people who run Maui’s regional hospitals (MMMC, Kula and Lanai) said that unless the state Legislature started appropriating far more money to the hospitals, or allowed them to negotiate a new public-private partnership with a new provider, they would make “extremely tough” (Hawaii Health Systems Maui Region CEO Wesley Lo’s words) service cuts. The Legislature didn’t appropriate any real money (no surprise there) but they did vote to allow a partnership. Hawaii Health Systems chose Kaiser, and all seemed ok.
Then the unions that represent many hospital workers cried foul. Concerned over the future employment of their members, they sued over the new Kaiser deal. Though state officials worked out a compromise, Kaiser announced that their merger–originally scheduled to take place this summer–would now happen next July.
Which means we’re back to facing potential cuts in service at Maui’s hospitals.
“I want to be expressly clear to our physicians, staff, patients and our families and friends that make up Maui County, our first priority is your care–we will do all we can to protect you throughout this drawn out process,” Lo said in late August. “We have to make some extremely tough decisions which may result in bed and specialty closures and an increased rate of transports to Honolulu facilities to deal with this shocking setback.”
This is scary–no doubt about it. And it’s got Lisa Varde, executive director of the Maui Memorial Medical Center Foundation, utterly terrified.
“The inability of our government leaders and the unions to come to agreement about the future of healthcare on Maui is staggering,” Varde said in a Sept. 3 email. “Because of the future uncertainty, numerous lawsuits and months of turmoil over this problem, it is virtually impossible to recruit desperately needed physicians and nurses. The remaining hospital staff are doing their very best to ensure quality care for patients. But with 400 position vacancies, this situation will surely come to its breaking point very soon.”
At times, Varde’s rhetoric reached a fever pitch.
“Closing hospital services and flying patients to Oahu is UNACCEPTABLE,” she wrote in her email. “Why are matters of life and death not taking precedence over every other issue facing the state at this time? It has been heartbreaking and frightening to realize that the leaders in charge of these negotiations do not care about whether people live or die on Maui.”
Terrified yet? How about this:
“All trust in our government and in the supposed goodwill of the unions has been lost, and will not be recovered,” Varde wrote. “Make no mistake–lives will be lost. The sad fact remains that the political dysfunction in our state is harming an entire community. Maui lives matter!”
You know what’s terrifying? Varde’s implication that hospitals should be run like dictatorships, in which all employees should work quietly and never do anything (like organize) to ensure that a new public-private partnership doesn’t chew up the labor guarantees they’ve previously worked under.
Look, I’m not saying that we should just ignore hurricanes and potential hospital cuts. But part of being a good citizen means rationally prioritizing threats and dangers. It means questioning whether it’s even possible for a person to “remain vigilant always” and whether it’s fair and just to calling union negotiations a threat to our very lives. Fear may be pervasive in American society, but that doesn’t mean we have to surrender to it.
Image of Edvard Munch’s “The Scream”: Google Art Project