The Hawaii Department of Health has restored visitor privileges to former Hansen’s disease patients and resident staff at Kalaupapa who were barred from seeing their families and friends for more than two years during the pandemic.
The state imposed much tighter restrictions on the secluded peninsula of Molokai than those in place in the rest of the state, prompting some patients to beg for hugs even as much of the rest of the world was beginning to accept Covid-19 as a manageable part of everyday life. Some patients who suffer from memory loss due to old age sometimes confuse living in confinement because of the coronavirus with previous experiences of being shunned by the world as leprosy sufferers.
But the state recently relaxed its blanket no-visitors policy, implemented in March 2020. Starting in November, Kalaupapa residents can seek approval for sponsored visits by up to six vaccinated guests at a time, the health department said. The total number of visitors in the settlement is limited to 25.
Patients and staff are excited to restore a little normalcy to their lives, according to Miki’ala Peskaia, Kalaupapa National Historical Park ranger.
“This is the best medicine for us,” said former Hansen’s disease patient Meli Watanuki, 88, who recently enjoyed a visit from friends from Honolulu for the first time in three years.
The coronavirus pandemic marked the second time former Kalaupapa patients have been forced into isolation due to a spreading disease. But where they were once brutally segregated from the rest of society to protect others, they were isolated during the Covid-19 pandemic for their own protection.
Other pandemic rules have also been eased on the 10,700-acre peninsula, which is incorporated as Kalawao County and administered by the health department.
Masks can now be removed outdoors as long as people keep a distance of 6 feet from each other. But masks remain mandatory indoors, and indoor gatherings continue to be limited to five people.
With the approval of the health department, some outdoor activities and gatherings of more than five people have also resumed on a case-by-case basis. This month there will be a Christmas celebration and caroling from door to door.
Department of Health spokeswoman Kaitlin Arita-Chang said the department’s priority is protecting high-risk members of the Kalaupapa community from Covid-19. None of the former patients living in the settlement have become infected.
Four patients in their 80s and 90s remain in Kalaupapa, among the many former Hansen’s disease patients who chose to continue living on the rocky peninsula despite the repeal of a 1969 Hawaiian law that had exiled them there until death. An estimated 8,000 people affected by the disease were banished there from 1866 to 1969.
The last living patients live in the settlement with the support of the health department, which provides them with furnished housing, medical staff and stipends for food and clothing.
Watanuki was 18 when she was diagnosed with Hansen’s disease in 1952 in her native American Samoa. Thinking she had overcome the disease, she moved to Honolulu in 1960. But signs of the disease returned in 1964. After undergoing treatment, she chose to move to Kalaupapa in 1969.
“I’m so happy this is my home,” she told Civil Beat in an interview this week.
Today, Watanuki starts his morning at church before going to work at the Kalawao store. In the afternoons, she clears and cuts weeds part-time for the National Park Service at St. Filomena in the original area of Calawao settlement.
She is supported by faith in God and reverence for the saints Father Damien and Mother Marian Cope, who dedicated their lives to caring for Hansen’s disease patients in Kalaupapa despite the risks to their own health.
Pandemic restrictions have been difficult, Watanuki said, but she understands that the strict controls imposed by the state are meant to protect her.
Although personal visits have resumed, public tours remain closed. As co-owner of Saints Damien and Marianne Cope Molokai Tours, Watanuki said she is eager for tourism to return. Health department administrators have told her that tours are expected to resume in 2023, she said.
Watanuki noted that in recent months there have been many federal employees who have traveled from the mainland to work at Kalaupapa.
“Why is it different?” she asked, adding that tourists come in small numbers and leave after a few hours, while federal workers typically stay on the peninsula for weeks or months.
Sister Alicia Damien Lau, a Catholic nun who lives in Kalaupapa, said public tours remain closed because of concerns that visitors from other places could spread the virus.
“We don’t want people coming to Kalaupapa that nobody knows,” she said. “So it’s strict. But it’s good. This is to protect our kupuna.
Next week, for the first time in three years, the Kalaupapa Lion’s Club will resume its annual Christmas party with some semblance of normalcy. There will be food, giveaways and a chance to win a ukulele.
The party will be held outdoors, a pandemic precaution that is far less stringent than those imposed on the event last year, when partygoers could only travel by vehicle to pick up gifts and food to take away home and enjoy solitude.
The Department of Health also approved Christmas carols for patients and staff.
Civil Beat’s coverage of Maui County is supported in part by grants from the Nuestro Futuro Foundation and the Fred Baldwin Memorial Foundation.