As painful as it is to live under North Carolina’s partial lockdown, just imagine how much worse it would be if the COVID-19 outbreak were happening before the advent of the Internet.
The damage to our economic well-being would be far more severe, for example. While many goods and services cannot be produced without concentrations of employees and face-to-face transactions, large numbers of North Carolinians are, however imperfectly, working from home. They are videoconferencing, emailing, producing goods and services, buying and selling, and preserving the nexus of relationships that forms a business, large or small.
Keep in mind that “the economy” is not a stack of dollar bills. When the federal government borrows money from creditors to pay out to households, who can then pay their own creditors, little real economic value is created.
Such stopgap relief may make sense — indeed, I think government must step in to soften any blow that is itself delivered by government edict — but the policy does not expand the economy. Production of goods and services still declines. Without online work, it would be declining faster.
The damage to our children’s education would also be more severe in absence of the internet. In several years, colleges and universities have been moving more and more of their content and coursework online. After the shutdown, then, they already had an infrastructure in place for students to continue their education through distance learning.
The transition has been far rockier for elementary and secondary schools, of course. Not only are their lessons and assignments harder to deliver online, especially for younger students, but also there has been resistance to delivering new academic content to K-12 students on the grounds that it wouldn’t be fair to disabled students and those lacking computers and broadband connections.
While equity concerns are understandable, the vast majority of parents aren’t going to accept a months-long break from learning for their children. The U.S. Department of Education has made it clear that proceeding with online education will not be considered a violation of federal law, so public-school districts can use other approaches — including compensatory education once schools reopen — to address the needs of disabled and disadvantaged students while continuing to teach new content through the end of the 2019-20 academic year.
Next, if we look at the front lines of the battle against COVID-19, the role of online networks has proved to be indispensable. State regulators and third-party payers have allowed a major expansion of telemedicine. It helps contain the spread of the virus in at least three ways.
First, it diverts patients with unrelated conditions or minor injuries from emergency rooms, urgent-care centers, and other providers in hotspots where capacity may be strained. Second, it allows COVID-19 patients with mild-to-moderate symptoms to receive medical attention without leaving their homes and potentially spreading the virus. Third, as North Carolina and other states develop strategies to track the disease — including but not limited to widespread DNA testing for the virus itself — online tools will be essential.
Finally, for millions of people, the Internet is providing at least a semblance of normality under highly stressful conditions. Using online video, they can see as well as talk to their family members and friends.
At the dance studio where I teach on the weekends, our video lessons aren’t just about exercise and technique. They are about maintaining personal connections and combating feelings of isolation and depression for young people (and not-so-young people) whose shared interests have created a tight-knit community.
Whether it be for religious services, support groups, book clubs, video “play dates,” or virtual “coffees” with neighbors and colleagues, such uses of modern technology serve a timeless need, the desire for sociability that is deeply embedded in human nature.
It does not minimize the staggering toll of what we are experiencing to point out that America in 2020 is in some key ways a better place than it was a generation or two ago, when a comparable pandemic would have inflicted vastly more suffering.