Social capital: in the days of Covid-19, good neighbours keep their distance

 Francesca Borgonovi and Elodie Andrieu.

In Bowling Alone, Robert Putnam illustrated the decline of social capital in the United States and traced it to changes in how individuals spend time at work, family and leisure – alone. According to Putnam, when people bowl alone (it was always such a sociable sport), community spirit is lacking and individuals in these communities suffer.

Although close physical social relationships allow Covid-19 to spread, ‘social capital’ – the resources and benefits people receive through their connections with others – may be significant in determining if and to what extent communities implement behavioural changes aimed at halting the spread of the virus. This is crucial, because in the absence of vaccines or effective drugs to treat Covid-19, public health measures have been directed at preventing SARS-CoV-2 contagion by reducing interpersonal physical contact and by promoting the use of protective measures when such contact occurs.

Those with high levels of social capital tend to be ‘good citizens’, active in their communities, helping neighbours, voting. Our research is providing early evidence on the association between social capital and behavioural changes. We use existing data on social capital levels in a large number of counties in the United States and track changes in mobility patterns observed during three key weeks in the early phases of the pandemic. These are the weeks beginning on March 9, March 16 and March 23.

On March 17 the US government highlighted the importance of social distancing and of adopting protective measures to limit the spread of COVID-19. Therefore the week of March 16 captures behavioural changes occurring immediately following these announcements, the week of March 9 captures behavioural changes occurring before the public announcements were made but when the virus was already circulating in the United States, and the week of March 23 captures behavioural changes occurring a short period after the announcements.

Other things being equal, in the week of March 9 a small decline in mobility – people going places outside their homes – compared to the previous week was observed in the United States: on average mobility decreased by around 1.3% and this decline was concentrated among counties with high levels of social capital. In the week of March 16 on average mobility was reduced by 16% compared to the previous week and in the week starting on March 23 mobility was reduced, on average and additionally, by 21% compared to the week of March 16.

In both weeks reductions in people travelling outside their homes were more pronounced the higher the social capital in the community. In other words, in communities with higher levels of social capital mobility reductions were swift and sustained. Our research controlled for median income, population density and other factors.

Although we only evaluate one type of behaviour, reduced mobility, rather than other forms of protective behaviours (such as wearing face masks, washing hands well and frequently, self-quarantining on developing symptoms or coming into contact with a person with symptoms), our research provides early evidence on the important role community relations play in the adoption of protective behaviours during the COVID-19 pandemic.

As governments around the world relax shelter-in-place orders and mandatory social distancing requirements, the importance of social capital is likely to grow. Our results suggest that in the months to come people are likely to continue to make efforts to limit physical contact, especially for those most at risk. But communities with high levels of social capital may be better placed to bowl together by bowling alone, ensuring that physical separation does not turn into isolation and that community spirit is sustained.

Francesca Borgonovi and Elodie Andrieu 2020. Bowling together by bowling alone: Social capital and Covid-19. COVID ECONOMICS VETTED AND REAL-TIME PAPERS Issue 17. 13 May 2020.

Photo: Phil Roeder via Creative Commons

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