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Americans' right to know now means digital access

Digital technology has modified the way Americans are weathering the COVID-19 pandemic almost as quickly as the virus has changed the way we live. Technology may also moderate the outcome, as people who can work or study at home are doing so, and are not mingling in workplaces, schools, buses or sidewalks.

If access to the internet were not as nearly universal as it has become, would government and public health officials have even attempted the mitigating policy of social distancing, which they now predict will lower the eventual death toll from one million Americans to 100,000-200,000? The economic sacrifice of stopping nearly all work would probably have been judged too great to risk. More lives might have been risked instead.

This ready solution for the challenges of social distancing was available because, as of 2018, about nine in 10 American adults were using the internet. In 2000, about half of all adults went online, according to the Pew Research Center, which has been following the rise of individuals' internet use since then. The solution is also a matter of timing, because the last five years have seen a boom in speed, networking, and corporate willingness to go online for conferencing, training and customer transactions. Many companies with employees now working from home say they could not have done this level of work offsite even a few years ago.

Connecting the majority of people helps immeasurably in the current situation — but the viral epidemic is also putting into stark relief the gap between haves and have-nots. One inescapable fact of the COVID-19 response is that people with digital access have far more ways to cope from home than those who don't, particularly the elderly and families of school-age children without high-speed internet.

What used to be known as the "homework gap" has burgeoned as the "schoolwork at home gap." It is a two-part challenge: the home needs a tablet or computer but it also needs broadband. Disparity has been evident for years, with 35 percent of students in lower-income households lacking a broadband connection at home in 2015, according to a Pew analysis of U.S. Census data. The disadvantage becomes staggering when all schoolwork must be done at home without access to teachers online.

Pew studies also found that racial minorities, older adults, rural residents, and those with lower levels of education and income are less likely to have broadband. The disdvantages to these Americans have multiplied as doctors' offices communicate through patient portals or text messaging, more banking and shopping moves online, and Medicare, Social Security and the Census all prefer online communication. In the current pandemic, churches, libraries, museums, nature centers and other cultural organizations have stepped up to share programming online and alleviate the tedium. For those who can't visit a website and don't have email, that is wasted.

This viral attack will leave nothing unmarked when it finally dies down. As in all wars, emergency solutions will be used as models for doing things differently than before, even when the threat ends. Schools, colleges and businesses will have found advantages to at-home work that they will use to update their operations. Internet access will become truly indispensible. Then society and the economy will urgently need to find ways to make it unversal.

The so-called Information Age has been one long series of modernizations as to how people find out what they have a right to know. In colonial days information came from a town crier. The Day itself represents an industry that made itself indispensable at affordable prices; a "newspaper of record" is still the term for a publication that reaches enough people to count as a public notice. Radio broadcasting and then television did the same, using advertising as the revenue stream.

One outcome of this pandemic must be to identify ways to make digital connectivity less a matter of ability to buy an expensive device and more like universal access, however that might work. It may well take a new form that hasn’t yet fully emerged, such as rent-to-buy (cellphones started that way) or underwritten ability-to-pay scales, or the news media's own efforts for "digital first," such as theday.com. Philanthropy may play a role in starting it up. Whatever forms it takes, digital access has clearly become a human necessity, and therefore more of a right than a privilege.  

The Day editorial board meets regularly with political, business and community leaders and convenes weekly to formulate editorial viewpoints. It is composed of President and Publisher Tim Dwyer, Editorial Page Editor Paul Choiniere, Managing Editor Tim Cotter, Staff Writer Julia Bergman and retired deputy managing editor Lisa McGinley. However, only the publisher and editorial page editor are responsible for developing the editorial opinions. The board operates independently from the Day newsroom.

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