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Covid-19 vaccine rollout puts a spotlight on unequal internet access

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In January 2020, members of Congress held a hearing to discuss the importance of digital literacy and closing the digital divide, or who has access to broadband internet and who doesn’t. Just weeks later, the coronavirus began sweeping across the country and upending the lives of many Americans. In so doing, it shone an even brighter spotlight on the internet haves and have-nots, a dividing line in America that often is shaped by one’s age, income level, race, and hometown.

As everything from school to work shifted from physical to virtual interactions, those without access to reliable internet or devices at home weren’t able to keep up with courses and homework. And while there were clear efforts from governments, non-profits, and tech companies to supply devices to students, for example, and make the internet more accessible, the issue has far from resolved, according to a new report from UCLA’s Center for Neighborhood Knowledge. Racial and economic inequality continues to limit access to remote learning, the report found.

The next phase of the pandemic is proving to be no different. Some of the same internet have-nots who have been at risk of losing access to remote education, telemedicine and social connections throughout the pandemic are now at risk of being left out when it comes to registering for the vaccine.

In many states, elderly populations are among the first eligible for the vaccine, but with registration largely taking place online, some are forced to lean on family members and volunteers with high-speed internet and more digital know-how to register.

Francesca Knerr, who is based in Connecticut, told CNN Business that her aunt and uncle, both in their 80s, were eligible for the vaccine but do not use the internet. “They don’t have email addresses. They have an iPad they don’t know how to use,” she said.

The couple initially tried to register for the vaccine on their own through the internet-free option — a hotline — but were unable to get through after several days of attempts. Ultimately, Knerr was able to get them both registered online herself. “If they didn’t have family able to sign them up, they’d still be waiting,” she added.

But others may not have family members who are digitally connected to help, adding another layer to the inequality in the United States.

Vaccine distribution is “yet another casualty of the digital divide,” said Gigi Sohn, a counselor to the former chairman of the Federal Communications Commission under the Obama administration who gave a testimony at the House committee hearing in January 2020.

At the time, Sohn, a distinguished fellow at the Georgetown Law Institute for Technology Law & Policy, called it “alarming” that home broadband adoption rates haven’t improved in recent years and said it is “critical” to address the reasons why to ensure “all Americans can benefit from the opportunities that broadband provides.”

“It has never been more clear than now how important it is for every American household to have broadband internet access,” said Sohn. “We learned that getting an education during Covid is a casualty. Teleworking from home is casualty. Accessing government services — like [the vaccine] — is a casualty … I’ve called the digital divide a national crisis and you can see why.”

Nearly one-third of adults 65 or older do not have internet, according to Pew Research Center, complicating their ability both to register for vaccine appointments and to get information about the pandemic more broadly. And this isn’t just a problem elderly Americans are facing. Pew also finds more than 40% of Americans don’t have broadband internet access at home.

“We’re running up against a roadblock of digital access — and in particular, digital access for disproportionately low income, people of color, older Americans and those in rural areas. These concerns are not new — they predate the pandemic — but what the pandemic has done is show just how disconnected millions of Americans are from critical functions,” said Dr. Nicol Turner Lee, director of the Brookings’ Center for Technology Innovation and author of the upcoming book, “Digitally Invisible: How The Internet Has Created The New Underclass.”

There are a number of reasons for this, according to experts, ranging from lack of infrastructure in rural areas to lack of affordable broadband in non-rural areas, as well as clear racial disparities. According to Pew, White Americans are more likely to have home computers and broadband internet compared to Black and Hispanic Americans. While mobile devices do help bridge the gap, Pew finds, these groups are also twice as likely as White people to have canceled or cut service due to the expense.

The lack of broadband access risks exacerbating the impacts of the pandemic on populations that have been hit disproportionately hard by the coronavirus. A CNN analysis, published last month, found that Black and Latino Americans are receiving the Covid-19 vaccine at significantly lower rates than White people, based on data from 14 states. According to CNN’s report, health advocates attribute this to federal government and hospitals not prioritizing equitable access more broadly.

Dr. Marcella Nunez-Smith, the chair of Biden’s Covid-19 Health Equity Task Force, said last week during CNN’s Coronavirus Town Hall that “one of the most important things we need to do is focus on equitable access to vaccines.”

Solving the access problem means addressing the issue of internet access, according to Dr. Julie Morita, a member of the Biden transition team and executive vice president of Robert Wood Johnson Foundation.

“Those with means and privilege are increasingly getting vaccinated before those with the highest exposure risk,” Morita said at a House committee hearing Wednesday regarding the “Road to Recovery” for the pandemic. “Necessities that some may take for granted—an Internet connection to make an appointment online; a car to drive to a large-scale vaccination site; the time it takes to navigate complex systems—are unaffordable for millions.”

Morita said “a fairer approach” is needed that “simplifies appointment systems and brings vaccines directly to priority populations.”

A number of local health officials have also messaged alternatives for people who aren’t online to register for vaccines, such as going through community groups, doctors’ offices, or hotlines. In some cases, though, alternatives may mean longer wait times than booking online, as ProPublica reported last month.

Beyond vaccine efforts, the Biden administration campaigned on a platform that included “universal broadband.” The FCC’s Acting Chairwoman Jessica Rosenworcel put affordable broadband first on her list of priorities in a late January memo. Congress recently appropriated $3.2 billion for a new emergency broadband benefit program that would allow eligible households to get discounts on broadband service and devices during the pandemic. And this week, Rosenworcel announced an emergency effort to address the so-called “homework gap,” requesting the ability to use its E-rate program, which supports schools and libraries getting access to affordable broadband, to support virtual learning.

Mark Warschauer, a professor at the University of California who has studied how the digital divide impacts education, said he’s hopeful that renewed attention to the issue amid the pandemic will spur more change.

“The internet and home access to technology was always seen as somewhat peripheral to education and now I think people realize that it has become central during the pandemic and probably will continue to be,” said Warschauer. “We have a history in this country — whether it is with gun violence or a health crises — when something really bad happens, people do pay a lot more attention. But whether they make the necessary changes, or not, is unclear.”

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