Is Civic Capital the Key to Combating Coronaviruses?

Several studies have shown that countries with greater public trust, equity and social capital have had fewer deaths from COVID-19. These are three ingredients of civic capital, a community’s capacity to solve problems and thrive. Civic Capital is a key factor not only for community health, but for most quality of life measures we care about.

Jay S. Kaufman, a professor of epidemiology at McGill University, recently wrote in the New York Times that countries with lower COVID-19 deaths are “distinguished by high levels of political cohesiveness, social trust, income equality and collectivism, like New Zealand, Taiwan, Norway, Iceland, Japan, Singapore and Denmark.” Although he included a caveat that these countries are also wealthier, wealth alone doesn’t seem to determine infection rates, which are quite high in wealthy countries like the U.S., U.K. and Luxembourg.

Kaufman cites a study published in late 2020 by researchers at Canada’s McGill and Carleton Universities that looked at COVID-19 deaths in 84 countries, concluding that income inequality, confidence in public institutions and civic engagement all contributed to reducing mortality. The study said that income inequality was a factor largely because of the prevalence of low-income workers in jobs likely to increase exposure to COVID-19. Confidence in public institutions was key to following testing, mask and other mandates.

The positive aspects of civic engagement cited in the Canadian study relate back to the positive benefits of “social capital derived through civic engagement,” as shown in various studies by the authors and other researchers. The authors say that this social capital is particularly helpful during a difficult time like the pandemic, when an appeal to people to work for the common good is part of the solution.

An interesting sidebar of the above study is that the researchers found a negative correlation between COVID rates and social trust that is associated with inner-group bonding, theorizing that in some cases bonds created within certain circles might undermine public trust and create opposition to government mandates, which is certainly something we’re seeing in the U.S.

The relationship between civic engagement and the effects of pandemics or other disasters is also evident in a recent European study that showed that public trust is greater when governments are transparent and people have an opportunity to be engaged. While this may seem like a no-brainer to many of us who promote and practice civic engagement, there have been few studies showing the correlation. And a finer detail of the study’s results is that transparency alone does not necessarily inspire trust; that trust is greatest when members of the public have an opportunity to participate in government decision-making.

The correlation shown in this study is likely a major reason for trust in local government remaining high even as trust in the federal government has fallen. Particularly in the past 20 years, local governments have worked hard to increase transparency and civic engagement.

As the pandemic hopefully recedes, it will be interesting to see the correlations between the various actions of our “laboratories of democracy” in U.S. cities and states and COVID-19 rates. We have already seen the uneven rates of infection and deaths among different races, and there is certainly huge variance among different cities and states. Still, the effects of city measures and local civic capital on COVID rates are sometimes hard to ascertain, partly because of state actions that interfere with local autonomy.

So, unless we’ve missed it, we don’t yet have solid proof of the benefits of social capital, equity and engagement on COVID rates in U.S. cities. But given the above research and what we know about the benefits of these aspects of civic life on health and prosperity generally, we’re likely to see this evidence soon.

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