COVID-19 in Pa.: State lawmakers must expand broadband access for all | Opinion

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By Wayne Campbell

The COVID-19 pandemic will long be remembered as a time which upended people’s lives and livelihoods and caused too many family tragedies to count.  Each day, there is more depressing news about more cases and more deaths.  It creates a shadow of doom over our society and world.

Many ways that we normally would use to cope with collective trauma won’t work now. Going to church in person is out of the question.  Going shopping to a Boscov’s?  Or an evening out with friends?  Not safe and not allowed by order of the Gov. Tom Wolf.

At least, everyone is sharing in this experience.  We are all in the same boat. The COVID-19 angst can become almost bearable knowing everyone is going through much of what you are.

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But, not everyone is sharing in this experience equally because they are completely isolated from human contact.  Remember the ad slogan “Reach out and touch someone?”  Well, we are not doing that right now.

Some may say that we have the Internet but not everyone has that ability to still stay or even be connected. With no human interaction to speak of and no Internet, a feeling of isolation and abandonment can settle in.

Picture for example an elderly person who does not have access to the Internet.  They may live alone and are cut off from socializing with others as they were used to.  Going to a restaurant after church is no longer an option. Even those providing social services such as Meals on Wheels are prevented from normal conversation.  An outcome can be depression, lethargy and possibly even thoughts of suicide.

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But there are even more tangible harms.  Telemedicine is great… if it’s available. A person who does not have Broadband access is deprived of medical care via telemedicine.They are forced to travel great distances to visit the same doctor.

It is a sad irony that those isolated individuals who need mental health counseling or medical care the most are unable to receive it because they are on the wrong side of the Digital Divide.

Another example is education. Since schools have been ordered to close and are no longer in session, remote learning is the alternative. A student who cannot go to school is expected to learn remotely.

The question is how? How can effective education take place if the student does not have access to broadband? Is it in-person tutoring?  That’s not an option with social distancing. Without access to high-speed broadband, solid education is not feasible.

Even though what we are going through is catastrophic in scope, it too shall pass. World War II ended. The Great Depression and its little brother, the Great Recession, are old news. That does not mean that there won’t be indelible scars from COVID-19.

Financial, spiritual and social wounds will remain long after all this is over. But we will recover from this adversity.  That is what Americans do.

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When Pennsylvania begins its trek back from the coronavirus brink, the General Assembly will resume more normal operations.

Eventually, the full Legislature will return to Harrisburg. When “normal” legislative work is resumed, the Pennsylvania State Grange urges lawmakers to make high-speed access to broadband an urgent priority.

Many government employees are experiencing what it’s like to try and work from home with no, or inadequate broadband. Those without Internet or cell service are at an even greater risk during this pandemic. We can no longer leave them on the wrong side of the Digital Divide.

This is as much a moral mandate as it is economic or even social.

Pennsylvania has a moral obligation to do the right thing – to make sure that people on the fringes are never be left behind again.

As we recover, the important thing is to learn from the COVID-19 pandemic. By providing universal access to high-speed Broadband, those currently left behind in the Digital Divide will no longer be put at risk or disadvantaged like they are now.

Wayne Campbell is president of the Pennsylvania State Grange, an agriculture advocacy group based in Lemoyne, Cumberland County, Pa.