Blog ‘Overcoming the COVID-19 Pandemic Through the Power of Communities: What Roles Should Social Capital Play?’


At the JICA Ogata Sadako Research Institute for Peace and Development, researchers with various experiences and backgrounds are forging partnerships with diverse stakeholders and partners. We will share their knowledge and perspectives gained from their research activities in the form of blog posts. This time, Saito Kiyoko, senior research fellow, wrote the following piece to share her thoughts on what kind of community is capable of confronting different types of threats, including the COVID-19 pandemic.

Author: Saito Kiyoko, senior research fellow, the JICA Ogata Research Institute

What the COVID-19 pandemic has brought about

COVID-19 is putting pressure on healthcare systems in all kinds of ways, destroying local communities politically, socially and financially. 90% of United Nations (UN) member states have experienced disruption in their healthcare services and an estimated 70 to 100 million people or more are suffering from extreme poverty. The UN Emergency Relief Coordinator warned that unless measures are taken, 270 million people would face starvation by the end of 2021 (WHO et al., 2020). In particular, although it was crucial to prevent the spread of the disease and the occurrence of healthcare supply-demand gaps in lower middle-income countries (LMICs) where healthcare systems are weak and resources are limited, most of them failed to require their people to drastically change their established daily lifestyles. As a result, the pandemic became global. Many studies point out two causes of this failure: the first was how accurate information on COVID-19 did not reach their people quickly; while the second was that even when such information reached the people, it did not become sufficiently strong motives for them to change their lifestyles. Aiming to overcome these two failures, WHO, the International Federation of Red Cross and Red Crescent Society (IFRC) and UNICEF announced the COVID-19 Global Risk Communication and Community Engagement Strategy, which has the objectives of strengthening communities and inducing people’s behavioral changes through the power of communities. We know that 90% of member states are already planning to take on this strategy (WHO et al., 2020) and the importance of the roles of risk communication and community engagement (RCCE) is recognized globally.

Risk communication and community engagement

RCCE has the following four strategic goals:
(1) Advance measures against COVID-19 in community-led ways.
(2) Sufficiently understand the situation of communities, such as knowledge and awareness of COVID-19 and relevant behavior, among their members.
(3) Strengthen community capacity not only by regional actors who are capable of finding solutions that meet the needs of each community but also by the participation of governments and municipalities as one so that measures against COVID-19 can be advanced in a community-led manner.
(4) Collaborate globally, regionally and nationally to improve the quality of RCCE and harmonize and optimize RCCE, not only in the public health domain but also across other domains such as humanitarian aid and development in an interdisciplinary manner.

Community-led measures can uncover potentially socially vulnerable populations (Photo: JICA)

As not only healthcare factors but also political, social, financial and other factors are complexly intertwined in measures to address pandemics, policies could sometimes be heavily politically influenced and downplay public health perspectives. By allowing the participation of a wide range of politically neutral people, community-led measures are expected to minimize political influence. Furthermore, social cohesion of communities around their leaders is expected to prevent the motivation to follow safety measures from dropping because of “pandemic fatigue,” which is caused by long-term movement restrictions, and enable communities to get through pandemics. Measures to address the pandemic are leading to global economic downturn, further widening social inequality gaps and making it even more difficult for socially vulnerable people to have access to resources (Kawachi, 2020). By having those with a thorough understanding on the social structure of the community confront the pandemic, community-led measures to address the pandemic can uncover potentially socially vulnerable populations that cannot be understood at the national level and intensively increase the resources that they are lacking.

To reinforce mutual support, social cohesion and resilience, and speed up recovery from social disintegration caused by pandemics, it is important to increase social capital like trust, social norms and social networks within communities, and build communities that could provide an environment that allows their members to equally access social capital, not only during normal times but also during pandemics (Ester et al., 2021). In particular, it is known that in the early stages of a pandemic, in communities with dense social networks more than in those lacking them, more residents can be engaged through assistance to those needing help while conforming to social norms, such as spreading information about actions to take in case of an emergency (for example, when a tsunami evacuation order is issued) and avoiding high-risk activities (Chamlee-Wright et al., 2011). The importance of social networks that lead to social capital access has been particularly argued repeatedly. In a study that analyzed how communities addressed the pandemic in Menorca, Spain (Ester et al., 2021), causes that led to the successful control of the pandemic on the island were analyzed. Analyses showed that because the island is geographically isolated, the locals had no choice but to help each other during the pandemic and social cohesion was strengthened. This resulted in the establishment of social norms like social distancing and mask wearing being easily achieved, with the cooperation of citizens. It was thus revealed that reinforcement of network ties has positive effects on health activities.

Can resilient communities solve everything?

An established theory about social capital states that the development of existing local systems is important in establishing a resilient community, and enthusiastic participation of citizens is necessary for this (UK Cabinet Office, 2011; Kawachi, 2022). This is because although citizens tend to proactively provide assistance (Cole et al., 2011), it is widely recognized that those in charge of emergency response in the public sector cannot help every local citizen. The idea assumes that residents in the community are capable of organizing independent activities and acting as a group (Quaranteli, 1999) and many policymakers argue that readiness from normal times is important. They say that making a system that allows for group activities from normal times and being always sufficiently ready would lead to the accumulation of social capital in the community, resulting in a resilient community.

In that case, what does a resilient community that should be built from normal times actually look like? Many studies have shown that communities with bonding social capital, which consist of people of similar backgrounds, are highly adaptive when a crisis occurs (Hawkins & Maurer, 2010). A strong correlation between the amount of bonding social capital connecting people of similar backgrounds and lowered excess mortality during the COVID-19 pandemic has been shown as well (Fraser et al., 2021). Thus, it can be said that bonding social capital is important when a crisis occurs.

Meanwhile, people of different backgrounds coming together as followers of the same church to raise funds through the church’s network for followers in need of help, and the presence of NGOs, social groups and clubs, have been shown to have positive effects on post-disaster population recovery (Aldrich, 2012). These results show that communities with bridging social capital, which consist of people of different backgrounds, have positive effects on disaster response and recovery (Aldrich & Meyer, 2015).

If such is the case and both bonding and bridging social capital have positive effects on disaster response and recovery, should we simply reinforce these two types of social capital as disaster readiness from normal times? Excessive social capital reinforcement has the risk of causing negative effects. Groups with excessive bonding can suppress individual liberty, be exclusive and force individuals to “read the atmosphere” and behave in agreement with pre-established harmony. Groups with excessive bridging, on the contrary, give too much liberty and interpersonal relationships become too weak, resulting in the lack of community participation and social relationships with acquaintances. These are the “dark sides” of social capital (Kawachi, 2022) and whichever social capital is insufficient or in excess, things can be problematic. That said, it is virtually impossible to maintain an ideal community that is constantly optimally balanced and the feasibility of a “just right” community is close to nil. What is more, the emergence of communities in response to disasters makes things even more difficult (Ntontis et al., 2019). According to Fritz and Williams (1957), when people go through shared experiences of threats to their survival and disaster-induced common suffering during a crisis, existing social borders become meaningless, people see each other as equal beings in need of the same kind of help, and altruistic communities with strong ties are created. However, these communities are temporary and degenerate when pandemics end. Social support, which seems to be abundant at the early stages of disasters, could be actually more unequally distributed and/or affected by existing inequalities and economic and political influences (Kaniasty & Norris, 1999), leading to the emergence of the dark sides. As you can see, it is extremely difficult to control the state of communities, which are constantly changing. This means that it is almost impossible to build resilient communities that can positively influence disaster response and recovery.

What is resilience?

Ntonitis et al., (2019) and Aldunce et al., (2014) pointed out this problem and argued that in building a resilient community, we should shift from valuing capital built by human activities—a result—to valuing the process of building itself. Aldunce et al., argued that what is important is not capital, which encourages cooperative behavior among people, but rather the process of adapting to constant changes in the environment, and proposed the “bouncing back” concept on disaster recovery process. The phrase “bouncing back” does not refer to the complete restoration of a community to its pre-disaster state. Instead, it refers to the adaptation to the reality at that time. The reality at each point in time is based on past situations and social capital is built based on reality. Therefore, this idea sees that if we insist on reverting the state of social capital to how it was in the past, people will become exhausted and there will be delays in recovery. When we see recovery as the act of facing reality and adapting to it, however, we become able to accept that the situation could sometimes become worse than before the disaster even if we commit ourselves to activities and that recovery is not necessarily always a positive process. Isn’t the important thing here to accept how circumstances continuously change and to adapt to them flexibly and swiftly? Perhaps a resilient community does not have a lot of capital but rather is a community that has great swiftness and flexibility that allow for the content, building method and accessibility of the capital to be made in line with reality.

A dynamic approach to find the optimum solution at each point in time based on real circumstances with swiftness and flexibility, however, is actually extremely challenging for policymakers. While investment plans based on the relationship between capital (i.e., goal or output), and investment (i.e., input to get that capital), are easy to plan, this idea to invest in the process, which is dynamic and does not have clear visible goals, is a really difficult one.

Process makers

Helliwell and Putnam (2004) argued that the adequacy of existing social networks is relevant to whether communities can function or not in case of an unforeseen disaster. Aldrich (2017) studied citizen group behavior following disasters in New Zealand, Thailand and Japan. He argued the importance of social networks, stating that in circumstances where social and/or material resources cannot be utilized because of emergency situations, existing social networks facilitate mutual help between citizens and social support, and negative impacts of disasters cannot be avoided with readiness from normal times that focus on physical infrastructure. The importance of social networks precisely asks us how future communities should look like. When seeing social networks as something consisting of process makers and something dynamic that changes in response to human activities, naturally, the ability of such networks to swiftly and flexibly change depending on the situation becomes important. It is obvious that the most important thing is investment to give these process makers the capacity to flexibly reshape networks to match the situations that they are in. In other words, in a community based on the “bouncing back” concept, depending on real circumstances, the state of social networks within the community constantly changes, let them be bonding or bridging, expanding or shrinking, and the rate of changes in the networks accelerating or decelerating. Communities keep on changing in shape and are alive. Everyone involved in the community needs to understand this point, decide what is lacking in that community at that point of time and provide the maximum possible help. Of course, networks that could be understood and what support could be provided differ between governments, social entities and citizens but action by everyone becomes the power of communities. The key is not results but the process.

*The opinions expressed in this publication are those of the author. They do not purport to reflect the opinions or views of JICA or the JICA Ogata Research Institute.

Senior Research Fellow Saito Kiyoko:
Saito is a senior research fellow at the JICA Ogata Research Institute from January 2021. Her previous roles include senior director of the Game Delivery Office, Tokyo Organizing Committee of the Olympic and Paralympic Games; education consultant, World Affairs Council of Philadelphia; associate professor, National Institution for Academic Degrees and Quality Enhancement of Higher Education; and postdoctoral fellow, Japan Atomic Energy Agency.

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