COVID-19 has widened the digital divide: How do we close it? | Friday Morning Coffee

By: - March 20, 2020 7:21 am

Good Friday Morning, Fellow Seekers.

From food delivery and entertainment to such basics as working and classroom lessons, the COVID-19 epidemic has thrown our dependence on broadband internet service into stark relief. One thing that’s also been thrown into stark relief is the fact that tens of millions of Americans lack access to a service that many of us take for granted.

Gov. Tom Wolf’s stalled, $4.5 billion Restore PA plan includes an expansion of the state’s broadband infrastructure. But the proposal’s dependence on an extraction tax on Marcellus shale natural gas drillers has made it anathema to both Republicans and many of Wolf’s own progressive allies.

Nonetheless, as Rutgers University scholar  observes below, some of the most vulnerable among us could suffer because they lack access to broadband internet services. He wrote this piece for The Conversationwhere it first appeared.

Amidst the flurry of social media updates about the COVID-19 pandemic, a chart illustrating the importance of flattening the curve has gone viral. The idea is that taking measures to slow the spread of COVID-19 lowers the chances of overwhelming hospitals and increases the chances that all of those who become ill will have access to treatment. The logic behind flattening the COVID-19 curve is intuitive – don’t panic, but be careful.

Unsurprisingly, the internet is playing a critical role in getting the word out to be careful and to help flatten the COVID-19 curve. Websites that present government data are giving people a sense of where cases are concentrated, and numerous other websites list numbers to call, symptoms to check for and tips for prevention. Increasingly universities are shifting courses online, businesses are asking employees to work from home and shoppers are ordering groceries online to minimize time in crowded spaces.

While the internet is an important resource in efforts to stay informed and proceed with daily lives during the COVID-19 pandemic, these online approaches to reducing risk are not available to everyone in the same way. As the Federal Communications Commission reports, more than 24 million Americans have no access to broadband internet, while the Pew Charitable Trusts projects 163 million Americans lack access to reliable broadband internet connections.

(Photo via

This digital divide falls along existing lines of socioeconomic inequality – those who are poorer and live in less affluent areas pay more for less reliable service. And while smartphones are more prevalent across all socioeconomic groups, they’re a poor alternative for broadband internet access for tasks like working from home or attending classes online.

The digital divide leaves some of the most vulnerable Americans – a significant proportion of the 163 million who lack access to a reliable broadband internet connection – at a significant disadvantage when it comes to accessing the real-time information people need to respond to COVID-19. This is a problem not only for people without broadband access, but also for society as a whole as we struggle to flatten the COVID-19 curve.

There will be many important lessons to be learned from the COVID-19 pandemic. A less obvious, yet nonetheless important, lesson is that the digital divide is complicating efforts to respond to the challenges society faces. Indeed, a poignant lesson from this pandemic is that finding ways to bridge the digital divide is quickly becoming a matter of life and death.

The Pennsylvania Capitol building. (Capital-Star photo by Sarah Anne Hughes)

Our Stuff.
Gov. Tom Wolf
 has ordered all ‘non-life-sustaining businesses’ in the Commonwealth to cease operations or face enforcement actions if they fail to comply. Elizabeth Hardison has the details. And here’s our running list of everything that’s open and closed in the Commonwealth.

In a pair of stories this Friday morning, Associate Editor Cassie Miller has what you need to know about the cancellation of a battery of standardized tests for Pennsylvania school students and, importantly, how the COVID-19 outbreak is impacting the 2020 Census.

A Pennsylvania state Senate staffer has tested negative for the coronavirus. He shared his story on Twitter. Stephen Caruso has the details. And even though unemployment call centers are getting flooded with claims, the state will only have about half the staff to field themCaruso also reports.

As of midday Thursday, Pennsylvania had 52 new COVID-19 cases, bringing the statewide total to 185 cases.

In Philadelphia, a local official called for postponing the state’s April 28 primary, our partners at the Philadelphia Tribune report.

On Capitol Hill, Pennsylvania’s federal lawmakers are getting used to living in a post-COVID-19 worldWashington Reporter Allison Stevens has the story.

On our Commentary Page, a University of Pittsburgh senior shares his COVID-19 experience. A Penn State scholar explains what you can do to maintain your mental and physical health during the outbreak. And opinion regular Mark O’Keefe has a few thoughts on what now looks like the utter irrelevance of Pennsylvania’s April 28 primary — assuming the date even holds now.

U.S. Rep. Mary Gay Scanlon, D-5th District( R), poses with a campaign volunteer (WikiMedia Commons)

At a time of social distancing, candidates are changing the way they run for office, the Inquirer reports.
Pittsburgh Mayor Bill Peduto is in self-isolation after two colleagues tested positive for COVID-19, the Post-Gazette reports.
The Morning Call looks at whether Pennsylvania hospitals have enough ICU beds to handle an expected surge in patients.
Gov. Tom Wolf has been accused of ‘overreach’ with his order to businesses, PennLive reports.

Here’s your #Pennsylvania Instagram of the Day (Art History Edition):

Criminal justice reform advocates are calling on Philly’s juvenile detention centers to release children, WHYY-FM reports.
The PA Post talks to childcare providers and how they’re being affected by the outbreak.
U.S. Sen. Richard Burr, R-N.C., and other pols are facing heat for dumping stock ahead of the coronavirus crashTalking Points Memo reports.

What Goes On.
Daily COVID-19 update by Health Secretary Dr. Rachel Levine. Most likely 2 p.m.

Heavy Rotation.
Here is an entire Madchester playlist to help you close out this eternal week. Play it loud. Dance around the living room like no one is watching.

Friday’s Gratuitous History Link.
Today, in 1774, 
the British parliament passes the first of the Intolerable Acts: the Boston Port Act, which closed Boston harbor until colonists would pay for damages following the Boston Tea Party. In Boston, someone yells, “Now that’s a wicked pissssahhhh ..:

And now you’re up to date.

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John L. Micek

A three-decade veteran of the news business, John L. Micek is the Pennsylvania Capital-Star's former Editor-in-Chief.