Comment: Digital divide now clear in access to covid vaccine

Seniors and lower-income communities often don’t have adequate internet access to sign up.

By Claire Park / Special To The Washington Post

Last August, with schools closed for distance-only learning, a photo of two children doing schoolwork in the parking lot of a California Taco Bell so they could use the restaurant’s Wi-Fi went viral.

For years, advocates have flagged the dangers of the digital divide, or unequal access to the Internet. It doesn’t just prevent students from finishing their homework; it also hampers people from contacting their doctors, staying informed and participating politically, accessing government services and benefits, and maintaining connections to family and friends across the world. In a society that increasingly assumes universal access, the inability to get online can lead to real suffering. The pandemic has raised the stakes of those disparities: Now even the administration of vaccines reveals the life-or-death consequences of the digital divide.

Getting a vaccine shouldn’t depend on having high-speed Internet service, a computer and familiarity with being online, but it often does. By reviewing digital resources such as The Washington Post’s tracker of vaccinations across the country, residents can stay informed about the coronavirus and sign up for vaccinations online.

Yet more than 77 million people in the United States lack Internet at home; and worse, many of them do not have access to a smartphone, making it that much more difficult for them to learn what’s available when and for whom. According to a study from the Pew Research Center, more than 4 in 10 adults with incomes below $30,000 a year don’t have home broadband services or a computer, and 3 in 10 adults in the same income bracket don’t own a smartphone. And even when they are in the loop, these people must also resort to calling state hotlines and waiting for hours on hold to reserve what vaccination appointments remain after many have already been booked online. While some states and communities reserve a number of appointments daily for those calling in, most groups still assume that everyone has the time, Internet service and device to make their appointment on the Web.

Further, Black, Indigenous and Latino people, as well as older adults — the very populations hardest hit by the coronavirus — constitute a disproportionate share of those without Internet access. This means that despite efforts to prioritize vaccinations for those most at risk, people in these communities who lack the Internet service, devices or digital literacy they need to sign up for vaccines online are still left at higher risk of contracting and dying from the virus.

Indeed, a study from January surveying states with public data on inoculations by race and ethnicity showed that shares of vaccinations among Black and Hispanic people are usually lower than their shares of the total population, with the percentage of vaccinated Black people smaller than their share of coronavirus cases in all states surveyed. Meanwhile, the share of vaccinations among white people is larger than their share of cases in the majority of the states surveyed, and larger than their share of deaths in more than half the states.

It’s not a coincidence that the same people who are less likely to have Internet service at home are also those at highest risk for severe illness and death from covid-19. A study last spring showed that when states enacted social distancing directives, people living in areas with high-speed Internet were more likely to stay at home than people living in regions without it. Now, we’re seeing how those with high-speed Internet can more easily get vaccines. Having access to the Internet doesn’t just mean living somewhere with network infrastructure, which itself has been discriminately prioritized in higher-income areas: If one can’t afford Internet service or the devices to use it, that service is unavailable. According to a study by New America’s Open Technology Institute, the average monthly cost of Internet service in the United States is $68.38, not including the price of equipment like routers and modems. This means that low-income families, who make up roughly a third of front-line workers, and who are at high risk of getting infected or dying of covid-19, are less able to afford the Internet service they need to sign up for vaccinations.

Digital illiteracy and other accessibility challenges are also taking a toll on high-risk groups like seniors. There are accounts of seniors across the country having trouble accessing vaccinations because they aren’t familiar with computers and smartphone apps. One older retiree in Washington, D.C., testified in front of the D.C. Council that she waited in a 400-person phone queue for a vaccination appointment, only to be turned away without even the option of leaving her name for a call back. Furthermore, online resources about the virus and vaccines are primarily in English and are not always accessible to those who have difficulty seeing. One son in Arizona reported that his mother hadn’t been able to schedule a vaccination because “she’s not an English speaker and doesn’t know technology well.”

In the short term, local, state and federal authorities will have to ensure that those without Internet access are vaccinated. More inclusive measures could include forming partnerships with community health clinics, taking vaccinations on the road in mobile clinics and ensuring analog forms of registration over the phone and at safe, in-person sites. Such provisions may help now, but until we overcome the inequities that made them necessary, the digital divide will remain dangerous for too many.

Claire Park is a program associate with New America’s Open Technology Institute, where she researches and writes on a number of technology policy issues including broadband access and competition, as well as privacy.

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