Coronavirus pandemic exposes why America's digital divide is dangerous

Daniel Castro, Opinion contributor

In the aftermath of the 9/11 attacks, the United States discovered it was wholly unprepared for a major terrorist threat and the nation had to fundamentally reinvent its domestic security program. Today, it is evident that the U.S. government has similarly failed to prepare for the threat of a global pandemic, and the most important public health intervention — social distancing —will be unsustainable without a major investment in digital preparedness.

While the shortage of masks, ventilators and test kits have made headlines for exacerbating the coronavirus crisis, Americans also lack enough laptops, tablets and broadband connections to stay connected while avoiding close contact. Millions of Americans, mostly in rural areas, do not have access to broadband at home. And nearly one in five Americans have access to the internet only through smart phones. The digital divide is concentrated among low-income individuals, many of whom are racial minorities.

To reduce the rate of coronavirus transmission, public health officials have told people to stay home. But that isn't easy. Consider the 44 million students across the country who have been affected by school closings. Schools have told families to switch to online learning, but millions of children risk being left behind because of the digital divide. Low-income families, for example, are less likely to have computers at home, and 18 percent of children in remote rural areas have no home broadband. The $2 trillion stimulus package Congress has delivered provides no significant funding to address this problem.

Schools have told families to switch to online learning, but millions of children risk being left behind because of the digital divide.

Or consider the six in 10 Americans with chronic health conditions who cannot simply stop seeing their doctors. Telehealth is the obvious solution, especially for older adults who face the greatest risk from the coronavirus, but few have this option.

Doctors lack needed technology

The Trump administration has taken important steps to accelerate access to telehealth services by changing Medicare rules to cover phone and video consultations and changing the rules that prevent health care workers in one state from practicing in another.  The stimulus package also includes $200 million to boost connectivity for rural health care providers and improves telehealth options for veterans. But doctors will have to start using the technology to make it widely available. This will not happen overnight: one in five doctors still do not have a certified electronic health record system despite billions in incentives and a decade of work.

Even government itself seems stuck in the analog era. Agencies are failing to implement effective telework policies for public employees — in part because they lack modern IT systems. They likewise are failing to meet the public's needs.

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Consider the plight of workers, veterans and retirees who face economic and health challenges: The government benefits offices they turn to as their primary way of getting help have shut their doors at the same time government websites are crashing from surges in traffic. Even if government websites were up to the task, few agencies have established online or remote options for citizens who are required to meet with civil servants for hearings and other official proceedings. The stimulus bill includes millions in agency funding to cover the short-term costs associated with telework, but no mandate for long-term change.

Many tech companies and internet service providers have stepped in to address public needs by increasing access to broadband for low-income Americans and offering free video-conferencing capabilities and other cloud-based software and services to schools, but they cannot solve these problems alone.

Move government sites to the cloud

Government needs to take a hard look at what it will take to bring the country up to a baseline level of digital preparedness. This should include investment in basics like broadband and electronic devices as well as moving government websites to the cloud so they can withstand spikes in traffic.

It also includes moving to a mobile-first digital strategy so that all critical government services can be accessed with a smart phone. Governments should also invest in next generation technologies such as secure electronic IDs and establish national standards for electronic notaries so people can conduct more business online.

Governments need to act now. If the pandemic lasts for months, these investments will be necessary to get through the current emergency. If the crisis ends earlier than expected, this new approach to digital preparedness would help ensure Americans are better prepared for the next national emergency.

And unlike stockpiles of food or medical equipment, investments in digital preparedness can be used immediately without depleting their future value, providing a needed boost as the U.S. economy seeks to recover.

Daniel Castro is vice president of the Information Technology and Innovation Foundation. Follow him on Twitter: @castrotech

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This article originally appeared on USA TODAY: Coronavirus pandemic shows dangers of America's digital divide