Government and governance, Health, Arts, culture & society | Asia, Southeast Asia, The World

23 June 2020

Contact-tracing apps, testing, and lockdowns have been used in different contexts to fight COVID-19, but without building the social capital needed to implement policy, containing the virus would be impossible, Stuti Rawat and Alfred Wu Muluan write.

A country’s quality of healthcare, standards of governance, and strong social capital are essential for effectively fighting COVID-19. Singapore’s Foreign Minister Vivian Balakrishnan made this clear in an interview in mid-March 2020, and a month later, most countries around the world, including Singapore, had in place stringent measures against COVID-19.

But once infection rates begin to slow down, given the economic trade-offs of lockdown and public opposition to it in some quarters, many countries will soon begin easing these restrictions if they haven’t already.

As restrictions ease, social capital will be even more critical in mitigating a second spike of COVID-19 than it was to initially responding to the virus. But what is social capital? Social capital refers to the features of societal organisation, like norms, trust, and reciprocity, and is what facilitates coordination and cooperation with government.

Although social capital is difficult to measure exactly, it is typically gauged by measuring levels of trust in society, the degree of connectedness in that society, and by the strength of its prevailing norms.

When a common threat such as a pandemic occurs, people need to come together to mitigate that threat. When social capital is higher, enforcing useful norms is easier. For the sake of collective benefits, individuals’ compliance with government regulations is much higher in a crisis.

Because of the novel nature of COVID-19, non-pharmaceutical interventions, such as wearing masks and social distancing, have been especially important. While citizens need access to the resources and information required to comply with these interventions, they even more importantly need to abide by those interventions, which often bring uncomfortable effects. But, how likely are they to do so, and what affects that willingness?

One study situated in Taiwan explored the link between behavioural intent to perform three health protective actions—receiving a vaccine, wearing a mask, and washing hands—and social capital. The study found that willingness to follow this health advice was associated with the level of social capital in a given community.

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For instance, respondents who had higher levels of neighbourly support and higher trust in the government reported a greater willingness to wash their hands or receive a vaccine. Similarly, greater frequency of wearing a facemask was associated with membership of associations, a signifier of trust in civil society, and with generally higher trust in government.

In the current fight against COVID-19, Sweden presents a case where social capital has contributed to behavioural compliance with health advisories.

Unlike its neighbours, the Swedish government has simply urged citizens to act responsibly and follow social distancing guidelines, rather than imposing strict rules.

Thus, schools, gyms, restaurants, and bars have remained open, and public life has been mostly unrestricted. Yet data from Citymapper, a public transit and mapping app, shows that by the end of April travel in Stockholm reduced by 70 per cent, which suggests that Swedes were choosing to comply with health advisories even though by law, they were not required to.

Sweden’s high levels of social capital can explain this. In the latest round of the World Values Survey for 2014, over 60 per cent of respondents in Sweden agreed with the statement “most people can be trusted”. This was among the highest rates in the world and also the most stable over time.

A similar association has been found by researchers for Italy, where regions with high levels of social capital – in this case measured through variables such as the number of blood donations and more traditional survey-based measures of trust – adopted social distancing practices early in the pandemic, even before they were required to by law.

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Given that one of the barriers to compliance is government’s inability to perfectly monitor individual actions, in the days ahead social capital will be a crucial determinant of how citizens respond and comply with regulations and guidelines.

But how can policymakers leverage social capital, and use it to promote good behaviour?

First, fostering trust is essential for managing the current pandemic and preparing for future crises. An interesting result from the Taiwan study is that it was general trust in government, rather than trust in its ability to manage the pandemic, that was associated with willingness to comply with guidelines.

In uncertain situations, such as a pandemic, compliance appears to be based on emotion and general feeling towards government, as citizens may not fully process messages from the government in an environment with a high degree of unpredictability. The lesson this offers is that cultivating citizens’ trust through clear, transparent communication and outreach on all matters is crucial, and can play an important role in managing future epidemics.

Second, increasing trust, specifically in the health system, can boost community compliance and cooperation. During the Ebola crisis, a study in Sierra Leone found that improvements in the perceived quality of care provided by government health clinics encouraged a greater number of patients to report and receive treatments.

Third, ‘visible signalling’ by prominent individuals can also be a way to cultivate behaviour until it becomes a societal norm. Political leaders can do this, for instance by appearing in public with masks on, and celebrities and social media influencers can be encouraged to communicate to the public how they continue to practice social distancing.

Fourth, by engaging with the heads of communities and associations, whether social, religious, cultural or others, government can encourage compliance by tapping on to these intra-network channels.

This is the case in Singapore, where many community-based organisations and associations serve as middlemen in bridging the gap between the government and the public. Policy implementation could be substantially improved by doing this, as community-based organisations can help communicate with citizens and report widespread implementation deviations on the ground, which substantially enhances the capacity of governments to handle the pandemic.

While social capital is an important factor in the success of such an approach, it is equally essential that public messaging regarding COVID-19 guidelines and regulations is clear, accessible, and as far as possible, consistent across government agencies.

In places with higher social capital, self-motivated people can be relied upon to work together to comply with the guidelines and regulations imposed by governments. Governments, in the meantime, can facilitate and foster social capital among the general public. This would encourage them to practice social distancing until the pandemic is gone and help prevent or mitigate a second wave of COVID-19. Crucially, it would also set up policymakers to deal with the next crisis, and the one after that, whatever they may be, and however much disruption they may cause.

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One Response

  1. Alfredo Behrens says:

    The impact on high contagion by those countries with low social capital was also expressed by the worst performance among those countries who, before the pandemic had difficulties even to form a government: Belgium Spain, Italy and the UK.

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