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Rich Kaufusi

Close-knit Polynesian community mourns loss of another member to COVID-19

By Garna Mejia, KSL TV | Posted - Oct. 30, 2020 at 11:02 a.m.



SALT LAKE CITY – The Polynesian community is one of the hardest hit by the pandemic and the tight-knit group is once again mourning the loss of a member, Sione Tukuafu.

Tukuafu died in the hospital Wednesday night.

Polynesians represent about 1.6% of our state's population but make up 3.3% of Utah's total coronavirus cases.

The International Peace Gardens have long been a gathering place in Utah for Polynesians like Rich Kaufusi.

"This is really home, specifically for the Tongan community," Kaufusi said. "I moved here in the '70s and you'd have people driving from Provo or wherever just to come because there was a get-together or gathering here."

But these are difficult times for the community, Kaufusi said somberly.

"This whole summer, just, it was one funeral after another, after another," he said.

Wednesday night, COVID-19 took the life of another of Kaufusi's loved ones, Sione Tukuafu, his first cousin, a loving husband and father.

"I don't wish that on anyone to know that they can not help their kids or their children," Kaufusi said.

Tukuafu, 42, spent the last week in the hospital on a ventilator. "Once we knew that he was there, we decided to fast and pray for his family," Kaufusi said.

While Sione's family clung to their faith all day Wednesday, Kaufusi said the family matriarch had a dream that prompted everyone to rush to the hospital.

"It was her dream that he was going to be taken away at 8 p.m. last night," Kaufusi said.

Sione Tukuafu died Wednesday, Oct. 28, 2020 after being diagnosed with COVID-19. (Photo: Rich Kaufusi)

Loved ones gathered in the parking lot.

"They heard and they just came there because they felt like they needed to be near him, to be by him," Kaufusi said.

Tukuafu and his wife were born in Utah but live in Tonga. They were in the states to see their daughter off on a church mission when the pandemic hit in March. The border back home was shut down.

"Even to this day it's still closed," Kaufusi said.

COVID-19 has killed 28 Polynesian Utahns and the community's mortality rate is the highest in the state. Polynesians are also two times more likely to be hospitalized if they get COVID-19.

Friends and family of Sione Tukuafu, who died after being diagnosed with COVID-19. (Photo: Rich Kaufusi)

"How do we convey to our other Polynesian families that we love you and we care for you and so forth, more than anything the way you can convey that is to not be there," Kaufusi said.

He added the path toward better times means stepping away from tradition for now.

"It's so contrary to who we are as a people and yet we have to do it if we want to continue to live," Kaufusi said.

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Garna Mejia

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