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July 27, 2020

The power of social capital during a pandemic

Opinion image

The novel coronavirus has spread rapidly over the past six months, affecting the lives, health, and livelihoods of people around the globe. In the absence of an effective vaccine, the key margin to contain the virus is human behavior. In almost all countries, policymakers and health experts have been appealing to the social responsibility of their citizens asking them to limit social contacts and follow strict hygiene and distance recommendations. Until recently, no systematic evidence existed analyzing the role of socially responsible behavior in containing pandemics in general and Covid-19 in particular. This void gave room for people, including the leaders of several large countries, to question the danger of the virus and accordingly the importance of behavioral restrictions like wearing masks or social distancing that make life less pleasant.

My colleagues and I have analyzed the relationship between socially responsible behavior and the spread of Covid-19 in independent analyses for seven European countries—Austria, Germany, Italy, the Netherlands, Sweden, Switzerland, and the UK. Following a large literature in economics, political science, and sociology, we use the concept of social capital to capture the extent to which an individual behaves socially responsibly. We measure social capital by the extent of voter turnout and blood donations per capita. In each country, we examine regional differences in the spread of Covid-19 in relation to persistent regional differences in the level of social capital.

Across all studied countries, we find that the virus is initially more prevalent in high social capital areas. This is not surprising as high social capital areas are more vibrant and socially and economically better connected. However, as more information about the virus and its severity spreads, we see a sharp decline in the relative number of cumulative cases in high social capital areas compared to low social capital areas. We confirm this pattern both in the raw data and using sophisticated econometric models that deliver estimates that go beyond simple correlations. 

In terms of numbers, we find that regions with a higher level of social capital accumulated between 12% (Germany) and 32% (Italy) fewer Covid-19 cases from mid-March to mid-May. Strikingly, the effect of social capital is strongest in the period before mandated lockdown policies could have had any effect. After national lockdowns were implemented, the growth differential between low and high social capital areas stabilizes. These two pieces of evidence suggest that voluntary social behavior has an important role in containing the virus. 

We directly document such a voluntary behavioral response using anonymized location data from Italian cell phones. Before the national lockdown was in force, Italians living in areas with higher social capital significantly reduced their mobility compared to those living in regions with less social capital. The difference in mobility vanishes after the lockdown was in place.

Socially responsible behavior also saves lives. Using Italian data on excess mortality, defined as the number of deaths on a day in 2020 relative to the same day in 2019, the number of excess deaths accumulated from mid-March to mid-May was 7% lower in high compared to low social capital areas.

We show that social capital is a key factor for the successful containment of a public health emergency, especially when lockdown policies are absent. Expecting future Covid-19 waves, our findings have direct implications for policymakers seeking to determine the strictness of regional containment policies. In areas with higher social capital, fewer and less strict restrictions on social and economic life may be possible without leading to detrimental public health effects.

© Sebastian Siegloch

Sebastian Siegloch is Professor of Economics at the University of Mannheim and a Research Fellow of the IZA.

Find more IZA World of Labor coronavirus content on our curated topics pages: National responses to Covid-19 and Covid-19—Pandemics and the labor market.

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