Socially Blindsided: Social Foundations of Pandemic Protection

Lambert here: My own “personal risk assessment” is all the solidarity I need. What’s wrong with these people?

By Katharina Lima de Miranda, Postdoctoral researcher Kiel Institute for the World Economy and Dennis Snower, Senior Research Fellow Brookings Institution. Originally published at VoxEU.

Thus far the Covid-19 pandemic has been investigated primarily in epidemiological, economic, and even environmental terms. The social foundations of pandemic protection – how societies respond to pandemics – have received relatively little attention, often accepted as an exogenous given, beyond the legitimate concern of policy. This column focuses on two major societal characteristics: solidarity and agency. The authors show that the G7 countries differ dramatically in terms of these characteristics, which affect countries’ ability to cope with the pandemic. Furthermore, these societal characteristics can be influenced through public policies. Such policies have been largely overlooked in government responses to the pandemic.

When policymakers responded to the Covid-19 pandemic, they commonly focused on three domains: public health, the economy, and the environment (e.g. Baldwin and Weder di Mauro 2020a,b, Morikawa 2021, Bertoldi et al. 2022, Campa et al. 2021, Chada et al. 2021, Islamaj et al. 2021, and Myrto and Stengos 2021). The pandemic is treated primarily as a shock to health and the economy, with some predictable environmental repercussions. Public policy has primarily been designed to combat the health and economic crises.

We argue that this approach is socially blindsided. It largely ignores how societies respond to the pandemic. We show that, first, different countries exhibit quite different societal responses to the pandemic. Second, these societal characteristics can change markedly from year to year. Third, we indicate that these responses can be influenced through government policies (Lima de Miranda and Snower 2022).

A country’s ability to respond to and cope with the pandemic depends significantly on two societal characteristics: solidarity and agency. ‘Solidarity’ covers the human need for social belonging and embeddedness in society, while ‘agency’ covers the need to shape one’s environment and influence one’s fate through one’s efforts.

Our evidence sheds light on something that, in hindsight, sounds obvious: societies that are cohesive and empowered – exhibiting high solidarity and high agency – are better at pandemic protection than societies that are fragmented and disempowered. What is less obvious is that there are considerable differences among these societal characteristics even among G7 countries, that these characteristics vary considerably from year to year, that they are subject to policy influence, and that they change in response to the pandemic in ways that differ from country to country.

We explore these issues in detail, focusing on the G7 countries. While the effects of Covid-19 on the economy were contractionary everywhere – as economies went into lockdown and suffered from health restrictions – and the effects on the environment were predictable (Fornaro and Wolf 2020) in response to the economic contraction (e.g. reduced CO2 emissions and increased plastic waste; see, for example, Kasioumi and Stengos 2021), the societal responses to the pandemic were remarkably heterogeneous. This heterogeneity has potentially important – and largely overlooked – policy implications.

Societal responses to the pandemic

The significance of societal responses to the pandemic is illustrated in Figure 1. The standard framework of thought concerning public policy is depicted by the three outer boxes: Covid-19 and public health, economy and environment, and the state. Covid-19 damages public health and thereby influences the economy and the environment. The economic and environmental influences, in turn, affect public health (e.g. mental health problems arising from lockdown). The role of the state is viewed as fixer of the health and economic crises (see, for example, Bricongne and Meunier 2021. The ‘lives versus livelihoods’ debate deals with the tradeoff between health and economic goals, e.g. Islamaj et al. 2021).

Figure 1 The roles of the state and society in dealing with the health and economic crises from the pandemic

What is overlooked in this standard framework is in the central box: society, with regard to its solidarity and agency characteristics.

These societal characteristics affect

  1. the response of public health to the pandemic (e.g. through informal networks of care and mutual support)
  2. the response of the economy and environment to the pandemic (e.g. through people’s adaptiveness to social distancing) and
  3. the effectiveness of government policy (e.g. through compliance with government measures to contain the pandemic).

Furthermore, these societal characteristics can themselves be influenced by government policies. These policies – related to solidarity and agency – have received relatively little attention in comparison with standard economic and health policies.

The SAGE dashboard

To analyse civil-society responses to the pandemic, we use the headline indicators of the SAGE dashboard (Lima de Miranda and Snower 2020): solidarity (S), agency (A), GDP (G) and environmental sustainability (E) – SAGE for short.

The SAGE dashboard rests on a few major ethical foundations, present across the nations and cultures of the world. Thereby SAGE aims to denote a wide-ranging sagacity in the pursuit and satisfaction of fundamental human needs and purposes. Solidarity is the focus of communitarianism, agency is closely linked to the central value of classical liberalism, GDP is central to utilitarian consequentialism, and environmental sustainability relates to the value and moral status of the environment.

We argue that measuring wellbeing on this normative basis is significant since (a) living in accordance with one’s moral values is a major source of wellbeing, (b) acting in accordance with moral values induces social cooperation and thereby enhances wellbeing from the satisfaction of collective interests, and (c) moral values are imbued with normative force, inducing people into action.

The SAGE dashboard provides an empirical framework to measure economic and social prosperity. The data used is exclusively provided by external sources (Gallup World Poll, World Bank, OECD, Carbon Monitor, Climate Action Tracker. See Lima de Miranda and Snower (2022) for details on the SAGE indicators).

The solidarity index measures country performance across the key components social support, giving behaviour, satisfaction with efforts to deal with the poor, and minority rights. Since solidarity may be directed ‘inwardly’ to one’s national, religious, ethnic, racial, or class groups, or ‘outwardly’ to groups with regard to which one does not define one’s social identity, we differentiate between inward and outward solidarity. The agency index is composed of confidence in empowering institutions, freedom of life choice, vulnerable employment, and life expectancy. Our measures of GDP per capita and environmental sustainability (CO2 emissions) are conventional.

Diversity of societal responses to the pandemic

Table 1 shows the uniform qualitative response of G7 countries in terms of material gain (drop in GDP per capita) and environmental performance (drop in CO2 emissions) in the first year of the pandemic (2020). This homogeneity of responses in the economic and environmental domains is contrasted sharply by the heterogeneity of social responses to the challenge of cooperation that the coronavirus posed.

Table 1 Responses to the pandemic

Source: Lima de Miranda and Snower (2022)

The diversity of societal responses to the pandemic can be clarified through the following patterns of characteristics:

  • If solidarity is above (below) the G7 average, a country is denoted as ‘cohesive’ (‘fragmented’).
  • If agency is above (below) the G7 average, a country is denoted as ‘empowered’ (‘disempowered’).

These patterns are illustrated in Figure 2.

Figure 2 Solidarity and agency levels in 2020

Source: Lima de Miranda and Snower (2022)

Empirical evidence suggests that countries with high levels of solidarity and agency – classified here as cohesive and empowered – can be associated with relatively favourable societal responses to pandemic control. Related to our measure of solidarity, it has been shown that shared values promote compliance and pro-sociality (Wolf et al. 2020), and that they induce people to cooperate without contractual obligations (Gelfand et al. 2021).

Further evidence from the first phase of the pandemic indeed shows that higher empathy towards vulnerable groups in the Covid-19 pandemic, as well as higher interpersonal trust increases preventive behaviours such as hygienic practices and social distancing, and, consequently, lowers mortality rates (Pfattheicher et al. 2020, Bartscher et al. 2021, Makridis and Wu 2021, OECD 2021). The opposite behavioural response was found for individuals with low solidarity (Grütter and Buchmann 2021).

Further studies find that higher trust in the national government, one of the components of our measure of agency, was an important determinant of successful pandemic management and individual compliance in the early stages of the Covid-19 pandemic (OECD 2021, Bargain and Aminjonov 2020, Han et al. 2021).

In short, cohesive and empowered societies tend to have preferable societal prerequisites to contain and cope with the consequences of a pandemic than fragmented and disempowered societies.

Variability in societal characteristics through time

The societal characteristics above are not to be viewed as cultural constants, that is, features that change only very slowly with the passage of time. On the contrary, solidarity and agency exhibit substantial variability through time, as shown in Figure 3.

Figure 3 Inward and outward solidarity index (panels a and b) and agency index (panel c) over the past 15 years in G7 countries

(a) Inward solidarity index

(b) Outward solidarity

(c) Agency

Source: Lima de Miranda and Snower (2022)

In short, solidarity and agency change significantly from year to year, much as macroeconomic variables do. These variables can respond to political, social, economic, health-related, and technological events as readily as macroeconomic variables.

Figure 3 also shows that the pandemic has had diverse effects on the societal responses to the pandemic. Thus, the health and economic effects of the pandemic are not only affected by societal characteristics, but the pandemic also influences these characteristics and thereby influences the degree to which societies cope with pandemic challenges.

Policy implications

In this context, it is not surprising that these societal characteristics are amenable to government interventions. This is an important insight, since promoting and enhancing social solidarity and cohesion as well as the sense of personal and social empowerment may, therefore, become be a potent policy goal. High solidarity and agency may increase policy effectiveness through an enhanced sense of social solidarity and feeling of empowerment to act in accordance with and adapt to government policies. Furthermore, it may help societies to cope with difficult circumstances through informal networks of care and mutual support.

So far, solidarity- and agency-enhancing policies have, however, received relatively little attention in comparison with standard economic and health policies when mitigating the effects of the pandemic and other crises. Given their potential effectiveness, these social policies should be given more attention. Policies that enhance social solidarity and cohesion may take the form of several welfare measures designed at increasing social integration and participation, for example by enabling citizens to use their skills and abilities to contribute to their society through the provision of equal opportunity and access to quality housing, education, health care and political participation. Policies directed at promoting agency can take the form of active labor market policies (e.g. hiring and training subsidies) since they help creating employment and acquiring skills. Successful solidarity- and agency-enhancing policies may lead to cohesive communities better prepared to cope and solve challenges that require collective action, such as a pandemic. Some guidelines on how to foster collaboration through solidarity- and agency-enhancing institutions and policies are provided for example by the Core Design Principles of Ostrom (1990).

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About Lambert Strether

Readers, I have had a correspondent characterize my views as realistic cynical. Let me briefly explain them. I believe in universal programs that provide concrete material benefits, especially to the working class. Medicare for All is the prime example, but tuition-free college and a Post Office Bank also fall under this heading. So do a Jobs Guarantee and a Debt Jubilee. Clearly, neither liberal Democrats nor conservative Republicans can deliver on such programs, because the two are different flavors of neoliberalism (“Because markets”). I don’t much care about the “ism” that delivers the benefits, although whichever one does have to put common humanity first, as opposed to markets. Could be a second FDR saving capitalism, democratic socialism leashing and collaring it, or communism razing it. I don’t much care, as long as the benefits are delivered. To me, the key issue — and this is why Medicare for All is always first with me — is the tens of thousands of excess “deaths from despair,” as described by the Case-Deaton study, and other recent studies. That enormous body count makes Medicare for All, at the very least, a moral and strategic imperative. And that level of suffering and organic damage makes the concerns of identity politics — even the worthy fight to help the refugees Bush, Obama, and Clinton’s wars created — bright shiny objects by comparison. Hence my frustration with the news flow — currently in my view the swirling intersection of two, separate Shock Doctrine campaigns, one by the Administration, and the other by out-of-power liberals and their allies in the State and in the press — a news flow that constantly forces me to focus on matters that I regard as of secondary importance to the excess deaths. What kind of political economy is it that halts or even reverses the increases in life expectancy that civilized societies have achieved? I am also very hopeful that the continuing destruction of both party establishments will open the space for voices supporting programs similar to those I have listed; let’s call such voices “the left.” Volatility creates opportunity, especially if the Democrat establishment, which puts markets first and opposes all such programs, isn’t allowed to get back into the saddle. Eyes on the prize! I love the tactical level, and secretly love even the horse race, since I’ve been blogging about it daily for fourteen years, but everything I write has this perspective at the back of it.


  1. DanB

    As a citizen of the USA, I do not believe that my government would, at this moment in history, enact any policies to encourage strengthening of the social foundations of society. These authors ignore the implications of the neoliberal world in which we are ensconced. They also ignore virtual criminal Covid policies of various Western nations. The USA has unofficially declared the pandemic over; our public health system has been shown to be unsustainable in a neoliberal world, where the idea of the public good no longer exists in practice or policy making.

  2. John Emerson

    If this isn’t gobbledygook someone explain it to me. Where do the numbers come from? What were the effects on COVID response?

    Given margins of error, all those countries were more or less the same except Japan and Italy.

  3. Greg

    What do they even mean by “solidarity”?
    I would guess a measure of citizens goodwill towards other citizens.
    But they’ve ranked UK and US as outstanding and says the Japanese and Italians are isolated and terrible to each other?
    That makes me think this is yet another economics-tainted study extrapolating from made up data to hypothetical results that have no bearing on reality.

    1. Polar Socialist

      Not necessarily goodwill, but sharing an interest or feeling of belonging to the same group. Class awareness. Sympathy and goodwill often results.
      Maybe they confused solidarity with solitarity?

  4. Tim

    If the US is that relatively cohesive, I’d expect Japanese to be hacking each other to pieces with Samurais.

    I don’t believe their data, and therefore can’t trust their conclusions.

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