...the relationship between the perniciousness of the plague and the presence or the absence of social capital in the places that suffer it. Are places that have high levels of social trust and strong institutions of civil society doing any better than those that don’t? Does good will toward men help fight the virus, or does it make no difference what the angels sing?
...the empirical results so far seem at least to suggest an intriguing paradox: that places with a great deal of social capital got hit worst by the virus, and then recovered fastest. This is reportedly the case with the secular, social-democratic countries of the European Union, none of them particularly religious, but many of them rich in shared networks of trust.
It’s a paradox of place: people who were not socially distanced at the start of the plague had an easier time learning to social-distance by its end. A striking study in Italy, for instance, found that places with high existing “civic capital” tended to “display greater mobility”—that is, people travelled around more—than places without it. But, “as soon as the threat of the virus became real, communities with high civic capital started to self-restrain and to internalize the risk of propagating the infection through social contacts.” Translated from the academese, people who are used to going out a lot stopped when people they trusted told them that doing so was a good way to get sick. That’s a process familiar to New Yorkers... We had, through nearly all of April, above a twenty-per-cent positive-testing rate; now, by living behind our masks and (mostly) staying out of bars, we have driven the number below one per cent.
In America, we have been undergoing a kind of four-year experiment in what happens to a country when social trust and social capital are not merely badly maintained but actively corroded. In Donald Trump’s government, favor flows from the head of state only to men of good will, i.e., those whom he considers to be on his side. We have been living a four-year exercise in destroying social trust and replacing it with gangster values: loyalty to the capo at all costs, and vengeance on his competitors and enemies taken at his direction.
The results are already clear. The rush to reopen in the so-called red states was motivated partly by commercial impatience but also largely by a kind of irrational rage at the “élitist” social networks that depend on the diffusion of scientific expertise. If instructed that scientific medicine is one more opinion on the spectrum of political grievance, then social distancing and mask-wearing become, like gun control, an imposition on liberty.
The disasters that have left America with far more COVID-19 deaths and a far higher per-capita infection rate than other rich countries have many causes and many lessons, acting, as they do, as an X-ray of our social inequality. But the seemingly unstoppable spread of the illness shows the cost, too, of actively looting our already diminished supply of social capital. Destroy our commonplace civilization, and the larger civilization around it will collapse, too. Where we struggle to create good will toward our fellow-citizens, illness rises and then abates. Where we encourage it only toward our kind, illness increases. It is a simple formula, though, by now, so much a matter of life and death that it would leave the angels, all of them, weeping to watch it.