Pre-existing racial disparities in unemployment, digital access, and financial resilience have been exacerbated in COVID-19’s wake. Black communities have been disproportionately impacted––in mortality, morbidity, unemployment, and financial losses. As governments and businesses prepare to navigate the economic and public health repercussions of the pandemic, it is crucial to account for these extant inequalities to ensure inclusive recovery.
Having robust digital platforms are key for business and public services continuity during the COVID-19 pandemic. While Kentucky and Washington both witnessed over a third of their workforce file for unemployment between March and mid-May, the latter state is better equipped to: 1) allow its employed workforce to work from home with low disruption; 2) enable unemployed workers to potentially shift to work that allows them to work from home; and most importantly, 3) support unemployed workers in their search for jobs and to seamlessly file for unemployment insurance online.
While states have been quick to expand telehealth policies in response to the pandemic, there exists a disconnect between policy action and the infrastructure available to support access. Sixteen of the 34 states with expanded telehealth policies have below-average coverage of broadband-speed internet connectivity—a major impediment to digitally administered healthcare.
Which states across the rural-urban continuum were able to digitally work from home, while containing the spread of the pandemic? Digital Planet scored and arrayed all 50 states and the District of Columbia on their digital readiness and average change in effective reproduction rate of the virus (Rt) from March 16 to May 13, 2020.
Urban-Rural Divides: The Uneven Experience of COVID-19 Across the States | Digitally ready states, which were able to implement strict social distancing and visibly reduce COVID-19 infection rates, also had an overwhelmingly urban population with greater opportunities to work, educate, and interact in a socially distant world.
The COVID-19 pandemic has laid bare longstanding and systemic issues of inequality in the United States. Certain marginalized races and ethnicities (Black or African American and Hispanic or Latinx households) are over-represented in less-flexible, low-tech, and “high-touch” occupations and under-represented in the information economy and “high-tech” occupations; an outcome of decades of disparity in access to critical digital services like stable and affordable internet and computers.
Even as COVID-19 cases continue to increase in the United States, reaching over 1.67 million cases and nearly 100,000 deaths as of May 26, 2020, many states are now beginning to ease social distancing and stay-at-home mandates. Each state is taking its own unique approach to lifting stay at home orders, allowing businesses to open, and loosening social distancing regulations, due in no small part to a lack of direction from the federal government.
Digitally ready states were able to implement strict social distancing policies in the early days of the COVID-19 pandemic, with relatively less impact on their employment numbers. While all states experienced economic hardship and a drastic increase in unemployment, those states which were least digitally ready and instituted stricter social distancing measures experienced the most painful unemployment levels, with a higher percentage of their workforce falling out of work.
The delivery of public services online requires two necessary conditions: the infrastructure — hardware and software — for governments to deliver public services digitally, and the availability of affordable internet access. We scored and arrayed 42 countries on these two aspects: (1) digital public services and (2) inclusive and affordable internet. Additionally, we wove in a snapshot of government lockdown and social distancing mandates into this analysis.