Two decades into the twenty-first century, it still feels a little strange to justify all of the obvious ways that Internet access serves as a key pillar among the social determinants of health (SDOH) that govern our individual and collective wellbeing. The concept itself is at least two hundred years old: a German pathologist named Rudolph Virchow is often quoted as saying in the late 1840s, in response to the privation he saw in the run-up to the 1848 revolutions, that “medicine is a social science and politics is nothing else but medicine on a large scale.”
Our modern framing of the problem comes in large part from the World Health Organization, which in the preamble to its 1946 constitution wrote that “health is a state of complete physical, mental and social well-being and not merely the absence of disease or infirmity.” In 2020, the FCC has called broadband access a “super social determinant of health” in 2020, precisely because it serves as a gateway to all of the other elements of life that foster healthiness and wellbeing, from access to education, information, better food, economic opportunity, and socialization.
But a recent study published to the JAMA Open Network makes the connection even more explicit. In it, a team of researchers at The Center for Spatial Data Science at the University of Chicago show that a lack of Internet access has been strongly correlated with higher Covid-19 mortality rates across every type of household and in rural, suburban, and urban areas alike.
Internet Access Most Strongly Correlated with Covid-19 Mortality Rates
What’s more, controlling for the host of other social determinants of health and medical factors that researcher often look at in relation to Covid mortality rates (income inequality, housing overcrowding, access to primary care physicians, access to insurance), the study found that Internet access is the only one to cut across boundaries and predict lower or higher mortality rates. For “Black or African American, Hispanic or Latinx, and non-Hispanic White populations, different dimensions of SDOH were uniquely associated with each group’s disproportionate burden of COVID-19 mortality” but “Internet access was a significant factor in all communities,” the authors write.
They further suggest that a one percent increase in Internet access at the county level could prevent 2.4 additional deaths per 100,000 residents in rural areas, and as many as six deaths per 100,000 residents in urban ones.
This last point is an important one, because it highlights the repercussions when so much of our policy and funding discussions revolve around new deployment and adoption programs in rural parts of the country (where they are definitely needed) but at the expense of the millions of households that struggle to get access in vulnerable urban communities.
The study doesn’t definitively say why better Internet access offers protection, but offers some strong suggestions that it all boils down to access to information. This includes not only timely, up-to-date announcements by entities like county and city public health departments, the state, and the CDC, but also when individuals become eligible for vaccination. “If they have limited access to the Internet, they rely more on their personal network or their local network to get Covid-19-related information,” lead author Qinyun Lin told Vox. From the study:
We believe this finding suggests that more awareness is needed about the essential asset of technological access to reliable information, remote work, schooling opportunities, resource purchasing, and/or social community. Populations with limited Internet access remain understudied and are often excluded in pandemic research.
Read the full study below, or here.
Photo by Misha Feshchak on Unsplash