January 15 2021

Social capital and COVID-19

Tom Dickins, Professor of Behavioural Science, explores the notion of social capital in the context of the COVID-19 pandemic.

People are a resource for one another.  Groups therefore have social capital as a consequence of network structures and the properties of individuals. Bonding social capital refers to networks of highly similar individuals and bridging social capital is found in networks of dissimilar individuals.  Finally, linking social capital is a property of networks formed between individuals and institutions.

Social capital can facilitate disaster survival and recovery [1], positive environmental interventions [2] and resilience during pandemics [3]. 

A pan-European study of the COVID-19 pandemic of 2020/21 revealed the following:

First, we find that high-social-capital areas accumulated between 14% and 40% fewer COVID-19 cases between mid-March and end of June. Likewise, high-social-capital areas also exhibit between 7% and 14% less excess deaths in Great Britain, the Netherlands, Italy, and Sweden. A one standard deviation increase in social capital could have prevented between 459 deaths in Sweden and 8,800 deaths in Great Britain.

Second, we find qualitatively similar patterns across all independently analysed countries, which we regard as strong evidence for the robustness of our empirical results.

Third, we show a consistent dynamic pattern – the number of COVID-19 cases is initially higher in high-social-capital areas. However, as information on the virus spreads, high-social-capital areas start to show a slower increase in COVID-19 cases in all seven countries. The role of social capital diminishes as soon as national lockdowns are enforced. [4]

One interpretation is that in highly bonded social networks SARS-CoV-2, the virus responsible for COVID-19, will have been able to spread with ease.  But once the risk was exposed, those same groups who by definition have well-established norms of cooperation, are more likely to organise to protect themselves by considering the community situation, prior to the imposition of lockdowns.

Challenges to social capital

Inequality impacts negatively upon health [5,6] and the most serious outcomes of COVID-19 will be unevenly distributed across socio-economic strata [7,8]. 

In a systematic review, Uphoff and colleagues found that lower socio-economic status was associated with lower social capital and poorer health outcomes [9].  But bonding social capital could act to buffer low socio-economic status people against some of the worst effects of somatic and mental poor health. However, being poor reduced bridging and linking capital and this was also linked to poor outcomes.

Poverty under inequality amounts to irregular and low value resourcing where futures are unpredictable. This makes it hard to stabilise extended reciprocal interactions over time as any failure to repay a debt outweighs the minimal benefits of help further down the line.

Trust is more likely to form within a close group of similar people with whom values can more easily be communicated and norms for processing what is owed can be readily established: if you see each other all the time there is less opportunity for defection from social contracts. 

Forming such alliances with dissimilar people and institutions is a riskier proposition.  It is known that distrust of authorities by socio-economically isolated groups prevents uptake of public health interventions [10].  We might therefore predict that individuals with reduced bridging and linking capital will be more resistant to current public health messages about COVID-19 and perhaps more likely to violate restrictions and less likely to engage with subsequent recovery plans including vaccination. 

That resistance might be socio-economically distributed, as suggested, but we should also note that prolonged social isolation will increase everyone’s reliance upon bonding capital whilst measures are in place.  Any distrust of institutions will be magnified by this isolation and further compounded by changing messaging as a complex pandemic unfolds.

Social capital in a digital age

It is not only health interventions that rely upon bridging and linking capital.  As we remain at home we increasingly rely upon digital technologies but access to devices that can deliver on all tasks is unequally and socio-economically distributed.  

For example, home schooling has put delivery of our national curriculum into the hands of parents.  The plethora of online material to support this is impressive but not all families have the relevant or sufficient technology to teach their children.  There are schemes to help but they are not well advertised and they require brokering by parents with schools, thereby relying upon linking capital to make them work. Given that poorer groups within the UK are likely to have less experience of linking, of negotiating, of simply asking for help, it is likely that not everyone who should be will be supported.

A full strategy would take account not only of missing technology, due to inequality, but also of the way people will seek help; poverty will heavily weight bond social capital and stop broader search strategies.

Pitas and Ehmer [3] state that the US Government should invest in growing social capital in order to facilitate management of and recovery from the current pandemic. But they suggest mobilising digital technologies to do this for bridging capital, without recognising that this is potentially excluding. 

One thing this crisis reinforces is the idea that digital connectivity is a human right due to our reliance upon it to manage the quotidian and the extraordinary.  That right must be extended to all, and public health spending on the distribution of tablet technologies and internet access to all could facilitate social capital gains and improve resilience. 

A similar lesson should be drawn at the global scale where there are marked inequalities and outcomes.


The social resources we have are affected by socio-economic realities, and both impact upon our health and resilience.  Existing inequality will affect outcomes during the current COVID-19 pandemic but interventions will also impact upon social capital in ways that might exacerbate existing risks of disengagement. 

More generally, bridging and linking social capital will prove important for managing other aspects of the crisis.  Policy makers should attend to these effects and think about how interventions will be accessed by those with relatively reduced social capital.

To attend to social capital is to attend to our ghettos and to break down their walls.  Doing so will reduce inequality, improve health, and increase creative engagement with the problems of the world. 

We need to do this now because we will face future disasters together.


  1. Hawkins RL, Maurer K. 2010 Bonding, bridging and linking: How social capital operated in New Orleans following Hurricane Katrina. Br. J. Soc. Work 40, 1777–1793. (doi:10.1093/bjsw/bcp087)
  2. Dahal GR, Adhikari KP. 2008 Bridging, Linking, and Bonding Social Capital in Collective Action. CAPRi Work. Pap.
  3. Pitas N, Ehmer C. 2020 Social Capital in the Response to COVID-19. Am. J. Heal. Promot. 34, 942–944. (doi:10.1177/0890117120924531)
  4. Bartscher AK, Seitz S, Siegloch S, Slotwinski M, Wehrhöfer N. 2020 Social Capital and the Spread of Covid-19: Insights from European Countries. SSRN Electron. J. (doi:10.2139/ssrn.3616714)
  5. Marmot M. 2010 Fair society, healthy lives. Public Health 126 Suppl, S4-10. (doi:10.1016/j.puhe.2012.05.014)
  6. Marmot M, Allen J, Boyce T, Goldblatt P, Morrison J. 2020 Health Equity in England: The Marmot Review 10 Years On. London: Institute of Health Equity.
  7. Patel JA, Nielsen FBH, Badiani AA, Assi S, Unadkat VA, Patel B, Ravinedrane R, Wardle H. 2020 Poverty, inequality and COVID-19: the forgotten vulnerable. Public Health 183, 110–111.
  8. Ahmed F, Ahmed N, Pissarides C, Stiglitz J. 2020 Why inequality could spread COVID-19. Lancet Public Heal. 5, e240. (doi:10.1016/S2468-2667(20)30085-2)
  9. Uphoff EP, Pickett KE, Cabieses B, Small N, Wright J. 2013 A systematic review of the relationships between social capital and socioeconomic inequalities in health: A contribution to understanding the psychosocial pathway of health inequalities. Int. J. Equity Health 12, 1–12. (doi:10.1186/1475-9276-12-54)
  10. McConnell BB. 2016 Music and health communication in The Gambia: A social capital approach. Soc. Sci. Med. 169, 132–140. (doi:10.1016/j.socscimed.2016.09.028)

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