The Washington PostDemocracy Dies in Darkness

Researchers identify social factors inoculating some communities against coronavirus

A study examines how social capital — a measure of ‘networks, norms, and trust’ within a community — helps suppress spread of coronavirus

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Communities with high amounts of interconnectedness and communal trust — what experts call social capital — experienced less severe coronavirus outbreaks in 2020, according to research published in the journal PLOS One.

Pandemics are as much a product of human behavior as they are of biology, because a virus spreads via social interaction. The coronavirus has been particularly virulent in places where people congregate — churches, nursing homes, prisons, close-quarters work environments and the like.

Social factors also are at the heart of any pandemic response, particularly before the development of a vaccine. Adhering to coronavirus countermeasures — using masks, getting tested and maintaining social distance — are as much a reflection of concern for others as they are of self-preservation.

It stands to reason, then, that stronger, more connected and more trusting communities would have more success weathering the pandemic. This is the idea motivating the recent paper by Christos Makridis of the Massachusetts Institute of Technology and Cary Wu of York University in Toronto. Their work assesses whether the level of social capital in a community predicts the severity of the pandemic there.

Social capital refers to “features of social organization, such as networks, norms, and trust, that facilitate coordination and cooperation for mutual benefit,” as defined by legendary political scientist Robert Putnam. In communities with large reserves of social capital, people trust their institutions and their neighbors. They belong to civic organizations such as churches, Elks clubs and bowling leagues. They help each other in times of crisis.

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For their paper, Makridis and Wu used a social capital index previously developed by the Congressional Joint Economic Committee. That index combines dozens of individual data points — including family structure, parental behaviors, social ties, political engagement, trust in institutions, crime and charitable giving — to assess social capital at the county level.

The committee’s report identifies two U.S. regions where social capital is high: what it calls the “mid-continent North,” stretching roughly from Utah to the upper Midwestern states of Minnesota and Wisconsin, and the northern New England states of Vermont, New Hampshire and Maine.

One defining feature of all 12 states in these regions: They’re sparsely populated, home to just 9 percent of the U.S. population. Surveys have shown that people living in rural communities are generally more trusting of their friends and neighbors than people elsewhere, which can help build strong social networks. Some scholars who study social capital contend that in sparsely populated rural communities, “collective behavior is essential to provide basic services, like volunteer fire departments, that are provided by government in urban areas.”

On the other hand, the southern half of the country performs particularly poorly on the committee’s index. New York also stands out for low levels of social capital relative to its neighbors.

Makridis and Wu compared the committee’s social capital index score with county-level data on coronavirus infections, case growth and mortality. They controlled for a number of other factors that could plausibly influence severity, including population density, age, education and poverty.

“We find that moving a county from the 25th to the 75th percentile of the distribution of social capital would lead to a 18% and 5.7% decline in the cumulative number of infections and deaths,” they write.

They found, moreover, that the relationship between social capital and covid-19 severity persists even when factoring alternative measures of social capital, including one that uses census response rates as a proxy.

Other recent research on social capital and the pandemic has yielded similar results. There’s also a consistent body of work showing that social capital is a critical determinant of how communities respond to a crisis. One infamous example is the 1995 heat wave that killed hundreds of people in Chicago, particularly in fractured, impoverished neighborhoods where isolated seniors lacked strong support networks.

Makridis and Wu also broke down the committee’s social capital index to determine which element is most closely related to covid-19 severity. They found that “greater trust and relationships within a community” were some of the most powerful predictors of virus spread. “When individuals have a greater concern for others, they are more willing to follow hygienic practices and social distancing.”

Conversely, in places with low social capital, people tend to be distrustful of the government, making them less likely to comply with social distancing and mask mandates. This can create a type of vicious cycle, Makridis and Wu write: Lack of compliance with public health directives leads to more severe outbreaks, which causes trust in government to erode further.

Other data, like the ongoing pandemic behavior survey conducted by Carnegie Mellon University’s Delphi Group, shows that vaccine hesitancy is high in states with low social capital, particularly in the South.

While the data analyzed only goes through July, Makridis said in an interview that he and Wu don’t expect the relationship to change much over time. “When there are surges, that seems to be when social capital matters the most,” he said. “At the peak of the crisis in April, that’s when we found the greatest effect of social capital on the virus.”

Social capital helps explain why the U.S. response to the outbreak was so lacking compared with many of our peer nations. The United States ranks among the 10 worst nations for covid-19 cases and deaths per capita.

Makridis and Wu’s research underscores how the ongoing erosion of social trust in the United States created an ideal environment for a pandemic to flourish.