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Solving the unequal impacts of COVID-19

Solving the unequal impacts of COVID-19
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The 500,000 lives lost to COVID-19 is a sobering milestone symbolizing America’s failed, 50-state approach in combatting the pandemic. 

The absence of a cohesive national strategy by the prior administration, even over the most basic preventative public health measures to contain the virus, helped propel the U.S. to record the highest number of coronavirus cases and death toll of any nation in the world. 

For the living, the pandemic has revealed stark inequities in accessing the fundamental tools necessary to survive a crisis like this. The ability to stay connected, consume healthy food and receive important health-related services are at the top of the list. 

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If there’s one clear takeaway from our year of COVID-19 it’s that reliable internet accessibility is now core to our essential infrastructure. When the pandemic shut down our schools and our ability to gather in person, strong internet connectivity enabled many to stay in touch with friends and family. Children in more affluent communities were able to continue learning remotely. Those with serious health conditions with internet access continued consulting with their doctors. And essential workers have kept households fed and stocked with supplies by delivering groceries, medicines and other items ordered online.

Internet connectivity has allowed many to transition their work from office to home and continue earning a steady paycheck. Lives were inconvenienced, but the internet kept the country moving forward and spawned a whole new class of digital nomads. Not surprisingly, 80 percent of respondents in a recent Internet Society survey indicated the internet has become “much more important in their lives” due to the pandemic.

But not everyone has benefited equally. COVID-19 has exposed the massive disadvantage many Americans without internet access experienced every day — and in places you’d least expect. Today, in New York City there are 500,000 households without internet access. In California, over 26 percent of kids in K-12 lack a reliable internet connection at home. And in certain areas of Chicago nearly half of the children have been unable to learn online. The impact of this digital divide on the education of our children is both profound and troubling. America is light years behind in providing equal internet access for all.  

Beyond the internet, today 54 million people in America face a lack of healthy, nutritious food sources during COVID-19 — an increase of 17 million people since the pandemic began. Twice the number of households with children today are food insecure and communities of color are especially impacted. It’s believed the pandemic could cause an estimated 18 million children to battle this issue, where the potential long-term impacts of the food crisis — stunted physical development, brain and intellectual functions — may not be known for years to come.   

Reduced consumption of key nutrients can lead to major health problems. Iron deficiency can cause long-term neurological damage, mental health and behavioral issues, leading to lower student test scores, graduation rates and income potential later in life.  

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The number of U.S. adults who have reported anxiety or depressive disorder during the pandemic has nearly doubled, where in households with school-aged children women are more likely than men to suffer its effects. Income plays a factor here too, where those earning less than $40,000 reported twice the number of “major negative health impact[s]” during COVID-19 than those earning more than $90,000. Young adults and children have also seen a steady rise in anxiety and depression, increasing calls for a return to in-person schooling as child visits to emergency departments for mental health-related reasons have increased since the start of the pandemic.  

We need a holistic approach to address the fundamental inequalities the nation is confronting at this moment. And that’s exactly where the COVID-19 stimulus package can play a role. 

It includes provisions to address the digital divide so that more children can keep up with their peers and have the same ability to learn virtually. It will dedicate funding for the treatment and management of mental health. It will also commit needed resources to confront the problem of food insecurity to reduce the number of families facing hunger in America. 

Congress must pass this bill — it’s taken far too long. This is not the time for prolonged political disagreement to score reelection points. Lawmakers must put the country first and reach a consensus so that we can help millions of underserved Americans who desperately need it.  

Lyndon Haviland, DrPH, MPH, is a distinguished scholar at the CUNY School of Public Health and Health Policy.