Marshallese in Arkansas struggling to cope with Covid-19

5:12 am on 19 June 2020

In the US state of Arkansas, Marshall Islanders make up just half a percent of the population, but they represent six percent of all Covid-19 deaths there.

The Marshallese community distribute care packages and masks

The Marshallese community distribute care packages and masks Photo: Arkansas Coalition of Marshallese

To date 17 Marshallese have died of the coronavirus in northwest Arkansas.

The Director of the Center for Pacific Islander Health at the University of Arkansas Medical School, Pearl McElfish, said there were socio-economic reasons why the Marshallese were 12 times more likely to succumb than others.

"Marshallese tend to live more people in smaller houses and work at jobs that require them to come in each and do not allow for working at home," she said.

"So for example, many work in the poultry industry, or in sanitation, or cleaning companies."

Dr McElfish said one of the strengths of the Marshallese community was their living in multi-generational households with lots of people, but Covid-19 had meant this could become problematic.

Dr Pearl McElfish

Dr Pearl McElfish Photo: UAMS

She said this could mean a household of eight to 10 was likely to catch Covid-19 once one person became infected.

There were also clear signs of disparities in access to health care among the Marshallese contracting the coronavirus.

Dr McElfish said there were reasons for the higher death rates.

"I think it is because they have much higher co-morbidities, which would include diabetes, hypertension, asthma, so they already have health disparities when they get Covid, which would cause much higher mortality rates.

"The other issue is access to care," Dr McElfish said.

She said there was evidence some Marshallese didn't seek healthcare early enough, perhaps because of a lack of insurance, language or trust.

The local Marshall Islands Consul-General said fears of medical bills was a big factor in the numbers suffering.

Eldon Alik established a Taskforce to help the community, where he said included many unemployed.

He said few people had health care and Marshallese didn't qualify for federal help, so often avoided doctors.

"They wait probably until the last minute and go to the emergency room."

He also agreed with Dr McElfish.

"The other thing, Marshallese, many of us already have the underlying disease that Covid-19 usually kills people with, like cancer, like diabetes, heart problems."

Mr Alik, who said he had been given some funding by the Marshall Islands government to help, said social distancing was also a struggle for Marshallese because they liked to visit one another and be together.

The Marshall Islands Consul-General in Arkansas, Eldon Alik, during a mask distribution drive

The Marshall Islands Consul-General in Arkansas, Eldon Alik, during a mask distribution drive Photo: RMI Consulate Arkansas