Like many American families, mine was upended by the measures taken to mitigate the spread of COVID-19. With two children in elementary school, we found ourselves in the unexpected and unplanned role of homeschool teachers trying to facilitate their distance learning while also adjusting to the change of working from home ourselves.
There were times when all four of us were on Zoom conferences simultaneously. For us though, the challenge of accomplishing this was minor compared to some other families. We were fortunate to have multiple laptops, tablets and smart phones. High-speed internet capable of handling those four simultaneous Zoom calls was a service to which we were already subscribed. I know that many other families do not have the resources we do, and that is the problem we face and has been brought to light by COVID-19.
This disparity in access to broadband internet has multiple impacts. It stifles job prospects, educational opportunities and even democratic participation. Knowledge gaps such as this are widening and exacerbated by increasing technology gaps.
In this unprecedented time, community and government leaders must recommit to closing the “digital divide” to ensure that we do not leave some of our most vulnerable members of society behind during the COVID-19 crisis, and after it passes.
Many Asian Americans work in industries that have been most affected by lockdowns — like food service and cosmetology — as well as in other kinds of small businesses. In New York alone, unemployment claims from Asian Americans have spiked 6,900 percent, a higher increase than for any other racial group.
These layoffs and business closures are at least partly motivated by a dramatic uptick in anti-Asian and especially anti-Chinese sentiment. The reactions are evocative of the anti-Japanese vitriol during the trade wars of the 1980s that led to the murder of Vincent Chin.
Given the various stresses that this pandemic has put on government agencies, the quickest way to file for unemployment benefits is online. Businesses have also been faced with the challenge of difficulty in applying for government aid such as the Paycheck Protection Program. This means that those without broadband access face substantial obstacles to receiving the lifeline they need.
As I have experienced with my own children, nearly all primary, secondary and higher education is conducted online. Now, children from homes without reliable broadband and access to computers or even smart phones also face the risk of falling behind in school. In many cases, these were the same children already at risk of falling behind due to other socioeconomic factors.
Just like the areas of unemployment and education, lack of broadband access is a significant barrier to applying for and receiving health-care benefits. With many in the Asian American community bearing the brunt of mass layoffs across industries, we can expect the 1.4 million APA immigrants whose families receive benefits from Medicaid or the Children’s Health Insurance Program to increase.
Lastly, with crucial government aid on the line, it is also important that Japanese American communities make their voices heard and participate in the legislative process.
Thirty-nine states currently offer online voter registration. For our community to fully participate in our democracy, this is a resource that all citizens in those states — not just those with reliable broadband access — should be able to benefit from.
Even with some of these systems, failure to implement them properly can further disenfranchise voters. After a failure to receive my requested mail-in-ballot this year, I waited in line five hours to vote, ultimately casting my primary selections 30 minutes after midnight.
Reading the news about the voting problems the next day, I learned that I could have cast my vote via email. Asymmetry in access to information is further exacerbated by lack of access to the internet.
While we understand that communities of color experience a disproportionate lack of broadband access, the gap in connectivity may be worse than we realize. While some studies show high overall rates of internet access for Asian and Pacific Americans, this effect breaks down when data is disaggregated into more specific ethnic groups, such as Bhutanese Americans or Bangladeshi Americans.
Despite the best efforts of the Federal Communications Commission to map unserved and underserved households, we need more precise data. This information can then be used to direct vital funds to areas where they will have the highest impact.
Ultimately, even the best data we have access to today indicates widespread gaps in broadband access within our community. We stand in solidarity with the whole APA community in calling for this digital divide to be closed.
COVID-19 has also forced the closure of most public access to broadband such as public libraries and community centers. The lack of public access points emphasizes the need for every American to have access to high-speed internet from the comfort of their home. Congress must act to not only expand broadband access throughout the remainder of this pandemic, but also going forward in the urban and rural communities that face the greatest disparities in access.
Universal broadband access is no longer the luxury it was when we transitioned from dial-up modems, but it is now a necessity, a fundamental baseline below from which no one should be slipping. Without full access to high-speed internet, we can no longer call our country one of opportunity and place ourselves even further away from the even higher standard of equal opportunity.
David Inoue is executive director of the JACL. He is based in the organization’s Washington, D.C., office.