By John Hood
RALEIGH — 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.
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 economic value is created. Such stopgap relief may make sense — indeed, government must step in to soften any blow that is itself delivered by government edict — but the policy does not expand the economy. Production 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 of their 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. 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 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. 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 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 telemedicine has proved to be indispensable.
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. And it allows COVID-19 patients with mild-to-moderate symptoms to receive medical attention without leaving their homes and potentially spreading the virus.
Finally, for millions of people, the internet is providing at least a semblance of normality. Using online video, they can see as well as talk to their family members and friends. Whether it be religious services, support groups, book clubs, video “play dates,” or virtual “coffees,” such uses of modern technology serve a timeless need, the desire for sociability that is deeply imbedded 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.
John Hood (@JohnHoodNC) is chairman of the John Locke Foundation and appears on “NC SPIN,” broadcast statewide Fridays at 7:30 p.m. and Sundays at 12:30 p.m. on UNC-TV.