More digital literacy could mean less COVID-19, LSU researcher finds

By: - March 29, 2021 12:00 pm
COVID-19 flags

Gov. John Bel Edwards put 9,758 white flags on the lawn of the Louisiana Capitol Monday — one for each person killed by COVID-19 in the state. (Photo by Julia O’Donoghue/Louisiana Illuminator)

According to a study of more than 1,000  Black people in Louisiana, 92 percent have access to a smartphone, 87 percent have access to the internet in their homes, but only 28 percent have used the internet for medical advice or information and only 58 percent have used digital technology to have groceries, toiletries or medicine delivered.

David Stamps, an assistant professor at LSU’s Manship School of Mass Communication and a research affiliate with the Reilly Center for Media & Public Affairs, conducted that study, and he said in a Friday phone interview that he thinks “digital literacy may be the bridge that helps Black Louisianians access vital healthcare messaging (and) access telemedicine,” which, in turn, could help “keep them safe amid COVID.”

Stamps spoke to the Illuminator hours before he presented his research findings to the Louisiana COVID-19 Health Equity Task Force, a task force that Gov. John Bel Edwards created in April 2020 after initial data indicated that 70 percent of the state’s COVID-19 fatalities were Black.  

The disparity isn’t as great now, but Black Louisianians have continued to die disproportionately of COVID-19. Experts have attributed the different rates of death to multiple factors, including a higher percentage of Black people using public transportation and relying on jobs that increase their exposure to infection. Black Louisianians have also disproportionately been evicted or experienced housing insecurity. Also, many of the state’s chemical plants were built near Black communities, and the increased air pollution worsens health outcomes for residents who become infected with COVID-10

Even though there are multiple reasons that Black Louisianians have been hit harder by COVID-19, Stamps argues that an increase in digital literacy could still be a help.

“If we focus more on addressing digital literacy and letting individuals know that if you have hypertension, high-blood pressure, asthma — all these comorbidities that are really rampant in Louisiana, especially in the Black community — you need to talk to your doctor or you need to pick up medication, you can do that without leaving your home,” Stamps said.

The researcher also says there’s a link with lower numbers of Black Louisinians using technology to seek out medical information with increased numbers expressing reservations about being vaccinated.  But that’s not the only reason, he acknowledged.

Referring to the HeLa cell line, which was developed from tissue from Henrietta Lacks, a Black woman, without her knowledge, and to the federal government’s decision to observe the effects of untreated syphilis by withholding treatment from infected Black men,  Stamps said, “We can’t forget that historical events like Henrietta Lacks and the Tuskegee (Syphilis) Experiment have led many people to believe that when it comes to safety and public health, black people — and our well being — is on the back burner.It’s going to take time to repair that.”

Stamps thinks high school and college students can be the key to addressing the digital literacy gap if they’re trained to teach older members in their community.

“Teach and train (high school and college students) to go out and be those facilitators” so that they can teach their families and older populations, Stamps said.Stamps said training as many people in digital technology  will  be “super beneficial” even after the pandemic is over.

“We are going to move forward into a new world where technology is interwoven into our everyday lives: whether it’s education, applying for jobs, getting your groceries,” Stamps said. “So, if everyone’s more tech savvy, everyone will be more prepared to navigate that space.”

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JC Canicosa
JC Canicosa

JC Canicosa is an award-winning journalist at The Louisiana Illuminator. Canicosa has previous experience at Investigate-TV and The Loyola Maroon and earned a bachelor’s degree in journalism from Loyola University New Orleans. At Loyola, he was the senior staff writer at The Maroon and the president of the school's chapter of the Society of Professional Journalists. Off the clock, Canicosa enjoys playing basketball, watching movies and dabbling in comedy writing.