In the United States, communities have evaluated and implemented the closing of their local libraries as a means of saving taxpayer dollars. The argument is that the information available at a library can be easily obtained from online resources. Furthermore, books, magazines, and videos can be digitally downloaded that people can read and view at their leisure. What these arguments fail to realize is the role that libraries play in allowing economically disadvantaged patrons to have access to the internet and other resources such as a free place to go and socialize without the expectation of having to buy something. Schools and libraries that provide essential services during the COVID-19 pandemic has exposed a trifecta of weaknesses in education, economic, and emotional issues that plague communities in the United States and the world.
Two African American young men sitting under an old oak tree in rural South Carolina appear to be something out of “Where the Crawdads Sing.” However, in these unprecedented times, the young men have laptops, books, paper, and pencils. Their objective was not to spend a leisurely afternoon playing video games or posting on Instagram. These are high school students who are using their neighbors’ internet service, so that they can successfully complete the school year. With low internet access, students are reduced to using neighbors’ service, going to the library, or sitting outside of the local Wal-Mart or other businesses that offer free internet access. To alleviate the issue, South Carolina deployed 300 school buses to rural areas that are equipped to function as a Wi-Fi hotspot. Although buses were already equipped with Wi-Fi, the use of buses as a hotspot was a new and necessary change to allow students to complete online course work (Harris, 2020). The culprit in all these situations is the lack of internet service and the availability of technology and use of technology in minority communities.
This article looks at the disparity that has been exposed by COVID-19 as it relates to education, economic, an emotional issues (mental health) among the African American community. The lack of stability in these three key areas demonstrates that minority communities are at a severe disadvantage and may be falling significantly behind due to the pandemic.
The current pandemic has caused the school district in Orangeburg County to disperse school buses with Wi-Fi to rural areas to provide services to students who do not have access to the internet. This service will hopefully allow students to complete assignments and advance to the next grade level. Although the buses were provided primarily for high school, middle school, and elementary school students, college students can also benefit from the hot spots. COVID-19 has shown the disparity that exists in this country and the needs that exist among lower income students. Students who are progressing due to having technology available at the local campus, who now don’t have these resources available to them, are less likely to be successful unless colleges and universities are willing to be flexible as it relates to assignment submission.
At first glance, one would erroneously assume that the lack of internet access is a rural or small-town problem. However, as described by Reilly (2020), low-income students across the United States, from New York, Philadelphia, Oregon and on various Native American reservations, also struggle with having appropriate access to the internet and the needed technology to successfully attend classes online. Not only should institutions of higher learning be concerned with the availability of the internet for students, they must consider other inequities that exist, such as the technology and software that students have access to. These inequities are also a by-product of economic status. As a faculty member, I have observed students attempting to complete assignments using their smart phones. Often the software needed cannot be accessed from a smart phone and students can only complete a portion of their assignments. Per Bach, Wolfson and Crowell (2018), the migration of core services to online has shifted “the ability of dial-up services and cell-phone-based internet access offer an inadequate level of access to the sheer mass of modern webtexts and the array of societal services that have shifted to online platforms make high-speed Internet access, or broadband access, the new basic standard (pg.25).” COVID-19 has exposed how little has been done to decrease the digital divide in this country. Students who lack the appropriate resources will continue to lag academically and this gap has only been accelerated due to the virus. Furthermore, this gap/lag will increase the economic gap between the haves and have nots, as stated by Bach, Wolfson and Crowell (2018) the relationship between inequality and information technology is much more complicated than stating the divide between these two groups.”
The current pandemic has also highlighted the economic disparity that exists. While many white-collar workers were able to shelter in-place, frontline blue-collar workers were forced to return to work as communities pressured governments to reopen the economy. Returning to work also meant that low-income families could once again receive a paycheck to help with expenses; but it also meant that these frontline employees were more at risk to contract COVID-19. Rho, Brown, and Fremstad (2020) states that “people of color overrepresent in many of the frontline industries, 41.2% of frontline workers are Black, Hispanic, Asian-American/Pacific Islanders (pg. 3).” The research goes on to explain that more than a third of workers in the frontline occupations live in low-income families. These occupations include such jobs as postal workers, grocery store, convenience stores, and drug store workers, trucking and warehouse workers, building, cleaning, and childcare workers Rho, Brown, and Fremstad (2020).
These occupations typically employ persons without a college degree, occupations where education is not a primary factor for employment. The fact that low-income workers had to return to work also meant that they were unable to remain at home and help ensure that their school-age children were completing assignments and attending school.
These low paying jobs mean that workers earn an income that does not allow wealth accumulation. This, in turn, means that funds were not available to help in emergency situations such as being unemployed without a paycheck or the payment of medical bills due to contracting the coronavirus. Although the government has issued stimulus checks to help during the economic crisis caused by the pandemic, loans to help small business owners seem to have eluded minority business owners. Mizota (2020) postulates that this lack of providing stimulus loans to minority business may be the result of not being current clients of the banks, and the fact that banks can earn more from providing stimulus loans to larger corporations.
Given the impact economically on minority families and businesses, it may be generations before minority businesses are able to recover. This recognition may be the catalyst for the next issue that COVID-19 has brought to the forefront: the gap in emotional health that of societal that exist for minorities.
Emotional Disparity: Mental Health
The final observation of the impact of COVID-19 in the workplace is the effect on mental health. A recent CBS This Moring segment explored this issue and it became apparent that social isolation, along with pressures associated with the economic impact of being furloughed— sometimes without pay—has impacted the mental health of the United States population. Galea, Merchant, and Lurie (2020), argue that “COVID-19 will cause a substantial impact on anxiety, depression, substance abuse, loneliness, and domestic violence, (pg. 817).”
The impact of social isolation is particularly impactful in the African American community since it is built on the interaction with family and social gatherings. One of the biggest disruptions for most African American families is the inability to attend church services and receive guidance from the sermon and interaction with other believers. Social isolation means that avenues to relieve stress have been taken away and persons are left to internalize issues.
The effects of COVID-19 can be correlated with PTSD which is already higher among African Americans (Novacek, Hampton-Anderson, Ebor, etc. 2020). The study also states that Blacks are vulnerable to negative mental health consequences during natural crisis, such as natural disasters, terrorist attacks, and large-scale pandemics (Novacek, Hampton-Anderson, Ebor, etc. 2020). However, due to a distrust of healthcare providers, discrimination, and income restrictions, Blacks are less likely to seek the help needed during the COVID-19 pandemic.
The coronavirus pandemic has impacted the global economy. The final impact has yet to be determined since daily the number of persons being affected is increasing. What has been determined is that persons of color seem to be impacted at a greater rate than non-persons of color. There is much work that must be done to minimize the effect within these communities since the disparity as it relates to education, economics and mental health already exist. COVID-19 will make the gap in society even greater unless protocols are put in place to lessen the impact.
Bach, A.J., Wolfson, T. and Crowell, J.K. (2018). Poverty, literacy, and social transformation: An interdisciplinary exploration of the digital divide. Journal of Media Literacy Education, 10(1), 22-41.
Galea, S., Merchant R. M., and Lurie, N. (2020). The mental health consequences of COVID-19 and physical distancing: The need for prevention and early intervention. Journal American Medical Association, 180 (6), 817-818.
Harris, B. (2020). S.C. working to help rural students connect; buses with Wi-Fi will be placed throughout the region. The Times and Democrat Newspaper.
Mizota, M. (2020). Coronavirus and racial wealth inequalities: How will the COVID-19 pandemic and recession affect the racial wealth gap in the United States. Duke University. PUBPOL 4990S Racial Wealth Gap William A Darity, Jr. Retrieved on June 30, 2020 from https://socialequity.duke.edu/wp-content/uploads/2020/05/Mizota.pdf.
Novacek, D.M., Hampton-Anderson, J.N., Ebor, M.T., and Wyatt, G.E. (2020). Mental health ramifications of the COVID-19 pandemic for Black Americans: Clinical and research recommendations. Psychological Trauma: Theory, Research, Practice, and Policy. Advance online publication. http://dx.doi.org/10.1037/tra0000796.
Reilly, K. (2020). The online learning divide. Time Magazine, April 6-13, 2020. Retrieved June 25, 2020 from Time Magazine.com, pg. 38-41.
Rho, H. J., Brown, Hayley, and Fremstad, S. (2020) A basic demographic profile of workers in frontline industries. Center for Economic and Policy Research, pg. 3- 10.