During COVID-19, AAPIs Need Universal Broadband Access More Than Ever
Several months into the COVID-19 pandemic and as coronavirus relief talks continue to stall in Congress, millions of Americans have adjusted to remote learning and working from home as our new normal. But even as our everyday lives shift online, many communities are being left behind, including members of the Asian American and Pacific Islander (AAPI) community who have been hit especially hard by the pandemic.
Although many studies appear to illustrate high levels of digital access and literacy for the AAPI community — with 95 percent of English-speaking Asian Americans using the Internet — disaggregated data reveals that the digital divide and broadband access are still relevant barriers for many.
Income, education, and English literacy levels are strong predictors for whether or not certain groups are able to readily access the Internet and other technological tools. This means that low-income AAPIs, immigrants, refugees, undocumented folks, older adults, and frequently underrepresented AAPIs such as Southeast Asian and Pacific Islander Americans are more likely to face challenges accessing digital resources and the Internet.
In the midst of a pandemic that has exposed, and often widened, inequalities at all levels of society and that has made the Internet essential for millions, the need to achieve universal broadband access for Asian Americans and Pacific Islanders and for all communities is more urgent than ever.
As schools and universities shifted to online or hybrid instruction, low-income students of color, including AAPI students, were among the first to feel the effects of limited broadband access at home. Many low-income, first-generation AAPI college students relied on their schools’ libraries, labs, and other on-campus resources to access the Internet and complete coursework, but COVID-19 has negatively impacted their ability to study and succeed in school.
The economic burdens of the coronavirus have also been disproportionately shouldered by people of color, including Asian Americans and Pacific Islanders. Asian American unemployment rates increased by 450%, the largest percentage increase among racial groups. Small businesses owned by people of color faced significant barriers to accessing relief programs like the Paycheck Protection Program (PPP). A staggering 95 percent of Black-owned businesses, 91 percent of Latinx-owned businesses, 91 percent of Native Hawaiian and Pacific Islander, and 75 percent of Asian-owned businesses were potentially ineligible for the PPP — ensuring that people of color continue to be disadvantaged economically.
One of the first steps in leveling the playing field must be guaranteeing that Asian Americans and Pacific Islanders, and other people of color, immigrants, undocumented people, and workers on the frontlines of this crisis, have broadband access in the first place to apply for relief programs, file for unemployment, and search for work.
This year’s Census and election cycle also taught us valuable lessons as to why universal broadband access is necessary for Asian Americans and Pacific Islanders, who are the fastest-growing group in the U.S. electorate. The 2020 Census was the first census in history to encourage most Americans to fill out the form online, and with COVID-19, this option became even more important. However, Asian Americans and Pacific Islanders who lack broadband access were at risk of being uncounted and underserved, especially given that one third of Native Hawaiians and Pacific Islanders and one fifth of Asian Americans live in hard-to-count census tracts.
In response, AAPI organizations across the country ramped up Census outreach efforts through phone and text banking, social media actions, and messaging apps like WhatsApp, WeChat, and KakaoTalk. AAPI advocates and organizations adapted similarly to the new realities of digital organizing to encourage AAPI civic engagement, producing in-language voter guides, holding virtual press conferences, and hosting Twitter town halls.
From local communities creating their own online tracking tools for anti-Asian hate crimes when their local governments failed to act, to national nonprofits monitoring misinformation and protecting the integrity of our elections, to grassroots organizations arranging mutual aid networks, to activists organizing for rent strikes, Asian Americans and Pacific Islanders have taken to the digital streets to provide material support to their communities and other communities suffering the impacts of the coronavirus and to combat the stigma and racism targeting AAPIs.
As the world moved online, new challenges arose for Asian Americans and Pacific Islanders, but new avenues for change also emerged through technology and social media. The Internet has been a powerful tool for activism and organizing and its utility has only grown because of the coronavirus. These efforts demonstrated just how vital the Internet is as an organizing tool and, in turn, how urgent the need is for universal broadband access.
For Asian Americans and Pacific Islanders, who have been targeted by xenophobia, racism, and harassment in the wake of the coronavirus, it is more important than ever that our governments represent and protect our interests and our lives. This pandemic has demonstrated the urgency in holding the American government accountable to the AAPI community — whether it be disaggregating AAPI data, implementing anti-discrimination resolutions, or ensuring universal broadband access — to support Asian Americans and Pacific Islanders in this critical time.
Working, learning, and organizing from home, COVID-19 has alerted us to the need, more than ever, to guarantee that Asian Americans and Pacific Islanders and other communities of color have access to the digital resources they need. Universal broadband access will not solve deeper issues of inequality like racism or classism, but equipping our communities with the tools they depend on to stay healthy, safe, and well is a necessary first step.