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Valuation of 'trust' lockdown and social capital: In good faith

An analysis of various lockdowns across the world shows the role of trust — between governments & citizens — and social capital in determining the severity of lockdowns and its health outcomes; write Saswati Chaudhuri & Biswajit Mandal

Valuation of trust lockdown and social capital: In good faith
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The world has witnessed a huge economic shock due to COVID-19 pandemic. Starting with China, a majority of countries has adopted some version of a lockdown — either complete or partial of all social activity — as a mitigative step to control the spread of the infection. In India, the lockdown started across the country on March 24 and is still ongoing in some parts of the country. Certain countries like India, Pakistan, Italy had come down heavily by locking all sort of economic activities, right from confining people in their homes to shutting down offices and businesses and eventually leading to a virtual closing of the economy.

Perception matters

By now it is apparent that the Coronavirus infection spreads when the infected population comes into contact with the susceptible population. Hence, lockdowns can be potentially very effective if the number of susceptible people running into the infected lot is considerably reduced. However, the rate of increase in infection does not depend solely on the immunological parameter. It also depends on the economic and social behaviour that would have an impact on 'matching' between the susceptibles and the infected lot. To put it differently, the rate of the spread of the infection would very much depend on how the people spend their time outside in relation to their economic activity, and the various customs and norms. So, it is plausible that only lockdown cannot possibly have all the desired effects, rather people will have to adapt to the new normal of social distancing and change their way of interaction which has some connotation for our perception about the society.

Researchers and scholars have been consistently trying to find out what had been the main determining factors that have led to the acceleration of the spread of the coronavirus infection from one country to another. There is no confusion regarding its origin and the nature of its spread. However, if we look closely into the valuation of the variable 'trust' by the citizens of a particular country, a very interesting picture emerges.

Value trust and be effective

We resorted to the World Values Survey (WVS) which provides data on socio-cultural and political change worldwide. It consists of national sample surveys in over 90 countries, using a common questionnaire with variables on beliefs, values, economic development, democratisation, religion, gender equality, social capital, and subjective well-being. In a huge contrasting revelation, the Survey was quick to point out that North-Western Europe has citizens who value trust a lot and has no qualms in trusting their governments and fellow citizens in comparison to its Southern and Eastern European counterparts. To come to concrete examples, we find that more than 60 per cent of the Swedes said that they trusted most of the people, while only 30 per cent of Italians do so and in the case of the Romanians, it is a measly 7 per cent. Higher trust also seems to influence responses to COVID-19. It gets reflected in the behaviour of the citizens during lockdown too. We can say that trusting countries have generally implemented less stringent lockdowns. Rather than harshly enforcing social-distancing rules, their governments rely on citizens to observe guidelines voluntarily. Sweden, with a population of over one crore was one of the countries which did not enforce a lockdown. South Korea never imposed a government designed curfew as such or stopped its people from going to work. So without even a proper lockdown, they were able to keep the situation under control as they followed a strategy of aggressive testing, contact tracing and isolation.

This phenomenon can also be corroborated by using data from the Government Response Stringency Index. The data is collected from publicly available information by a cross-disciplinary Oxford University team of academics and students from every part of the world, led by the Blavatnik School of Government. It is a composite measure based on nine response indicators including school closures, workplace closures, and travel bans, rescaled to a value from 0 to 100 (100 being the strictest response). This index simply records the number and strictness of government policies, and should not be interpreted as 'scoring' the appropriateness or effectiveness of a country's response. In terms of stringency, we find countries like India and Pakistan in South Asia, Italy, Slovenia and Greece in Europe, and Ecuador and Peru had enforced very high level of stringency in their containment measures (refer to the attached chart for details).

The Eastern European countries like Romania, Greece and Poland are generally known to be quite low-trust countries. Hence, they locked hard and fast fearing that their citizens would not follow the strictures issued by the government. Revenues collected from fines in these countries would help us to get a peek into the level of stringency of lockdowns in the various countries. From March 24 to April 19, the Romanian police issued 2 lakh fines (worth USD 69 million) to people who failed to comply with restrictions to curb the spread of the Coronavirus. The Romanians also have to fill out an official form before they leave home explaining why they have gone out. The form has to be presented along with an ID card if they are stopped by the police or military. Such quick, tough responses have helped the Eastern European countries to be relatively unscathed from the worst of the pandemic. Confirmed death rates in Poland and Romania are less than a tenth those in hard-hit countries such as France, Italy and Spain. However, the fines should not be understood as the main reason for people to abide by the rules. In the Romanian context, the people are so disillusioned with the Government and the ineffectual health infrastructure that they voluntarily try to stick to the right word. Hence, trust in the government and institutions can go a long way in changing the way people decided to interact in the COVID-19 period.

On the other hand, Germany is a high trust country and so they opted for a less stringent lockdown relying on the good intentions and values of the citizens. Germany did not need any sort of provocative policing; whereas the Netherlands being a high trust country also went for implementing an 'intelligent lockdown'. In the process, the Dutch intended to cushion the social, economic and psychological costs of social isolation and make the eventual return to normality more manageable. The Government did not put restrictions on roaming outdoors but specified a distance of 1.5 metres. The compliant Dutch people did restrict their outdoor mobility by 40 per cent.

Trust and the missing link

The whole discussion of lockdown, nevertheless, becomes ineffective if these countries have been unable to keep their COVID-related death fatalities low. It does not matter if you have a strict lockdown but still not able to keep the infection and fatality low. However, Germany with a very lenient lockdown did clock one of the lowest fatality rates by taking a leaf out of the South Korean experience of 'testing and tracking'. On top of that, the people's trust in the Government and rational decision-making at the highest level of the Government helped the Germans to mirror a better picture of the pandemic relative to their European counterparts. The picture is different for other high-trust countries like the Dutch and the Swedes — they did rely on targeted lockdown but their fatality and infection rates were also quite high. So we can say that trust acts as a double-edged sword for them — on one hand, they would probably perform better economically as they had kept the economy's engine moving but they might falter in terms of the spread of the Coronavirus. Instead of reaping the dividend of high trust, they might have just been pushed to the rear and lulled into a sense of false security.

The idea that our social fabric can be valued gave birth to the concept of social capital. We thus see that social capital can contribute to the health outcomes of the people at the micro-level. It helps us to access the resources (while economic capital helps us to buy them) by providing access to information through networks and act as facilitators of achieving common goals. The concept has also gained widespread recognition as being relevant for development with the World Bank endorsing that social capital is the 'missing link' in development.

To understand such interconnectedness between social capital and health outcome, we first understand these two key concepts; then we proceed to link them together as they help to promote the well-being of the individuals and households. Definitions of social capital abound and vary with quite divergent views. Such capital should not be considered only as an economic entity as social exchanges are not purely driven by self-interest. Rather social exchanges also need to encompass capital and profit in all their forms. Thus, social capital becomes a 'resource' that can be used to enhance one's wealth and status and to 'marginalise' others from full participation in social, economic and political life. Besides, social capital is productive and makes possible the achievement of certain ends, which had been hitherto unachievable. Besides, such dimension of social capital may well be extended beyond being a resource to include people's sense of belonging to their community, community cohesion, reciprocity and trust, and positive attitudes to community institutions like participation in community activities. However, some consensus on a definition has been reached, namely, that social capital comprises 'the norms and networks that facilitate collective action'.

Thus, over the last decade, the concept of social capital has become increasingly important in the sphere of public health but it is still in its nascent stage. A study of England, however, shows that though the material living conditions and the socio-economic position of the individuals are strong predictors of adverse health outcomes than various social capital indicators, people with invariably poor health were low in social capital content. One of the effects of poverty is to undermine community network and relationships. However, the much needed economic regeneration should also be accompanied by social regeneration if their ultimate goal of health improvement needs to be achieved. In Asian countries, the effect of social capital on health has been less studied than in the West. Considering the difference in cultural and historical backgrounds between the Asian and the Western countries, it remains unclear whether the beneficial effects of social capital on health persist in the Asian region. Therefore, the effect of social capital on health may vary among countries and cultures. In any effort to determine the universality of the relationship between high social capital and good health, it becomes important to establish whether such a relationship also exists in Asia, particularly in India. Some studies describing the positive consequences of social capital for health delivers

the message that strong family bonds decrease the likelihood of developing serious diseases and a wider social network has been associated with lower mortality rates.

It is also hypothesised that there are both direct and indirect returns on the production and accumulation of health and social capital. Direct returns stem from the fact that both health and social capital enhance individual welfare, while indirect returns come about as a result of the observation that health capital increases the amount of productive time, and social capital improves the efficiency of the production technology used for producing health capital.

In what follows, social capital has gradually become an essential but debated concept within social epidemiology and public health research. Whether social capital is a collective feature or an individual attribute, has been widely discussed. Nowadays, several researchers advocate that social capital has both individual and collective characteristics even though the level of analysis requires distinct theoretical and methodological considerations.

In the context of the present pandemic, higher social capital could imply greater in-person interaction and risk of contracting the infection. On the other hand, as discussed earlier, social capital can endow individuals with a greater concern for others as it is allied with greater trust and relationships within a community. This may unsurprisingly lead to more hygienic practices and social distancing leading to lockdowns becoming more effective and meaningful.

In spite of no signs of spread of Coronavirus abating, we are now witnessing the 'unlock' phase in many nations due to perturbation regarding long run anticipated economic distress. During this transition phase, therefore, we must bear in mind that relaxing the rules relies on good testing and tracing, with public trust and social capital as vital components for compliance as these two have long-lasting impacts on the process of socio-economic development of the world as a whole.

Dr S Chaudhuri & Dr B Mandal are Associate Professors of Economics at St Xavier's College (Kolkata) and VisvaBharti University (Santiniketan) respectively

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