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Lessons from the Epicenter of the Coronavirus Pandemic: How the Digital Divide Has Become a Public Health Issue For Cities and Its Residents

Image by Anna Schvets


By Oscar Lopez, Policy Fellow

Over the course of a few weeks, the coronavirus (COVID-19) pandemic has created a stark reality for Americans. Once lively university campuses now lack their students, synergetic workplaces lie silent, and whole communities huddle inside — all in the hopes of curbing the spread of this disease. This public health crisis has affected everyone, but it most burdens those in our society who are already the most vulnerable. 

Uninsured Americans face immense financial barriers to receiving coronavirus testing and treatment. Homeless individuals have a difficult time staying uninfected due to their lack of shelter. Service workers, largely minimum wage and unsalaried employees, have limited opportunities to work from home. The coronavirus pandemic has exposed many of the inequalities in our society, especially the far-reaching effects of the digital divide. 

For those communities that have high adoption rates, internet resources have proven to be useful  getting real-time recommendations for disease prevention and being able to comply with stay-at-home orders. For others, broadband disconnections have made surviving this disease challenging. They are shut out of the benefits of being able to work or learn from home and may not have access to real-time updates about controlling the spread of the disease. By low estimates, 21 Million Americans still lack a reliable broadband connection, and these Americans will find it tougher to continue life from home. 

With 159,937 cases and counting, New York City is the epicenter of the US coronavirus outbreak. The internet has been vital for the City’s ability to maintain engagement with its citizens. The city has deployed a COVID-19 information portal which provides information on resources for individuals and small businesses. Hoping to collect more data on affected areas, the city also launched an engagement portal where citizens can self-report symptoms. In an emailed statement, Jessica Tisch, Commissioner of the NYC Department of Information Technology and Telecommunications, said “Information is power, and we are in a race against the clock. To fight the coronavirus pandemic, we need not only more medical equipment and testing, but also more data in real time[.]”

The City of New York has relied heavily on online resources to help curb the spread of COVID-19, but areas of the city that face high levels of broadband disconnect will not be able to benefit from life-saving information. The Bronx, for example, is the borough with the highest percentage of households without broadband, about 37.30%. According to an analysis by Next Century Cities, that’s about 12.9% higher than the borough with the lowest percentage of households without broadband (Data Courtesy of NYC Master Plan). Despite the resources that the city of New York has published, a significant portion of Bronx residents won’t even be able to access them. 

As evidenced in other cities like Lynwood, California where  36.19% of households do not have a broadband connection, not having access to real-time information or the ability to correct misinformation campaigns comes at a high price. It could lead to higher levels of disease spread and low self-reporting data. Notably, Bronx residents have accounted for one in four coronavirus patients in New York, and residents have succumbed to the disease at double the cities rate. For communities like the Bronx, access to the internet will be vital for survival. 

Nationwide, many cities are looking to the internet as an important means for continuing necessary operation. City services are moving online, and communities are rapidly relying on online resources as 311 lines are inundated with calls. According to Mayor Pullian in Sandy, Oregon, “Broadband has been a tremendous asset to our community during this national COVID-19 pandemic crisis.” In nearby Mount Vernon, Washington, Mayor Jill Boudreau stated, “City operations could not function without our municipal broadband network.” 

Brownsville, Texas, has set up a website with links to resources, and an online questionnaire to determine a person’s eligibility for drive-through testing. Cameron County, where Brownsville is located,  has at least 118 coronavirus cases, and 28% of people in the South Texas region have diabetes. Though these online resources are helpful for spreading necessary information, almost half of the Brownsville population does not have the requisite connectivity to access those resources. In 2018, Brownsville was named the “Worst Connected City” by the National Digital Inclusion Alliance. About 47.13% of households did not have broadband internet connections. Again, this vast digital disconnect will make spreading prevention measures and information difficult, and will guarantee that many residents remain uninformed. 

Small businesses have also felt the deep effects of this pandemic. About 70% of small businesses have applied for emergency loans through the CARES Act, and many will likely continue to struggle as consumers stay inside. In light of this, UberEats waived its delivery fees for all independent restaurants. Though this is helpful for restaurants that have access to an internet connection, smaller mom and pop shops without a connection will be unable to experience the benefits of this opportunity. That is not only a loss to the small business owners and their communities, but lost revenue for the local governments and their digital inclusion initiatives.

Access to a high-speed internet connection has also played a part in helping hospitals cope with the coronavirus. With an exponentially increasing number of Coronavirus cases, healthcare providers are beginning to use online resources to assist in providing treatment. Health care providers, like St. Luke’s University Health Network in Pennsylvania, are fast-tracking telehealth services such as video conferencing tools to facilitate online consultations. In effect, telehealth services would make consultations more accessible and mitigate the risk of infection that would come with leaving one’s home. 

Similarly, Mount Sinai Health System in New York put together a set of digital tools that assist with the telehealth services process. Their Rx.Health platform combines digital triage and remote monitoring in a system that hospitals can deploy quickly. Their platform also includes electronic guides that can be sent to patients, and tools to digitally monitor patients that have been quarantined. Still, Americans who are unable to afford a broadband internet connection — a population that is already disproportionately more likely to be affected by the coronavirus — will not be able to utilize these online health resources. 

Some cities have already moved to expand broadband access during these trying times. For example, San Francisco has rolled out 25 wifi “SuperSpots” around the city to provide students with the internet connection necessary to learn from home. Each of these hotspots will be able to support 100 individuals, and they are being installed in areas of the cities with large concentrations of students without internet access. In Texas, the Austin Independent School District has started a similar initiative where they’re using school buses to give their students access to the internet. These efforts reflect the role that broadband access plays in our digital society. 

This is the beginning of a chapter. Work to expand broadband access cannot end after this pandemic is over. Though our struggle against this invisible enemy will end, our work to bridge the digital divide and increase digital opportunities must continue. Access to the internet has played an integral role in distributing information to flatten the curve, but it has also exposed the deficits within our country among connected versus disconnected populations. For too many communities, the struggle to obtain fast, reliable and affordable connectivity is an ongoing plight. COVID-19 has revealed that this is no longer just a technology issue, or an economic issue — it’s a public health issue. 

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