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The COVID-19 pandemic fundamentally altered American life. Caused by a novel virus that infected over 29 million people and killed over half a million people between January 20, 2020, and March 8, 2021, the pandemic offered the first opportunity to utilize digital tools on a large scale to protect the American people. Public health agencies leveraged the internet to quickly disseminate rapidly changing health recommendations, and the public responded by moving many of their in-person interactions — attending school and work, socializing, and buying groceries — online. While many scholars have investigated the role that the internet has played in the pandemic through misinformation, few have examined how internet access shaped COVID-19 outcomes in the pandemic. Most Americans have internet access, but those who do not are more likely to be people of color, poor, and have low educational attainment. This thesis offers the first empirical test of the question, “Did broadband internet access impact the COVID-19 pandemic?” Using demographic data from the American Community Survey and COVID-19 data from The New York Times, I tackle this question in two studies. In Chapter 2, I test the hypothesis of several scholars that broadband internet access impacts COVID-19 incidence through the spread of information about public health measures. I find that broadband internet access is positively associated with mask behavior in counties, which is itself inversely associated with growth in COVID-19. In Chapter 3, I then test whether internet access attenuates socioeconomic status and racial disparities in COVID-19 incidence, arguing that internet access is a resource within the Fundamental Cause Theory framework. I fail to find support that broadband internet access attenuates pandemic health disparities by race and socioeconomic status. I conclude the thesis by discussing its implications for research and policy as well as outlining future improvements.
Allen, Spencer, "(Dis)connected: Internet Access, Health Disparities, and the COVID-19 Pandemic" (2023). Sociology Undergraduate Senior Theses. 1.
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