COVID-19 and the Rebirth of Social Capital

We wait with baited breath the next pronouncements from government centres, health authorities and business commentators.  We're doing our best – in Canada at least – to respect the guidelines of social distancing, just as we've been instructed.  We watch south of the border as the American melting pot becomes the boiling pot and we just don't want to head down that road.  And so, we wait … tarrying for direction, stimulus, hope.But we watch our screens as others see openings for new directions.  Black Lives Matter, environmental advocates, grassroots democracy enablers, women's groups – all rushing to fill in the vacuum of what once had establishment inertia.  Yet that's just it: we watch, moving aside as others take the stage, pressing for change, for equality, for rebirth.There's been lots of talk in recent weeks of how the post-COVID-19 world needs to be better than what preceded it.  We hear of a new capitalism, a new democracy, a shakedown of the financial elites, and the pulling of the economic levers away from Wall Street in the direction of Main Street.  It's appealing, intoxicating even.  Yet it can't happen if we merely watch.  Without our participation, the activists are out on a limb with little support, and the establishment senses it has nothing to fear.The only thing that can alter our future isn't a theory, a financial regulation, a carbon tax or even an election, but the renaissance of social capital at that one level where it truly has credence and opportunity because of its availability to all – our communities.We all recognized one another at a distance on our way to materialistic bliss in recent decades, but we were too busy buying to be building.  In the process, our citizenship power got away from us as our purchasing power became our fixation.  But now, in this pandemic, we are suddenly noticing one another again, respecting the health of others, donating like never before to our most vulnerable, and even showing remarkable restraint from pounding one another to death on social media.  Something is going on that's quite beautiful in its own way, as communities recover their sense of collective need and collective action.Our problem is that it's merely a moment in time – not a movement but a minute, not a revolution but a recognition, not empowerment but a distant empathy.  To carve our initials into the ongoing tree of life, we must discover once again our collective willpower – that kind that can transcend politics, NIMBYism, and, yes, our material dependency.What is social capital?  It is actually something quite real, practiced, and built upon.  It is about reciprocity between people and groups.  It is about a trust learned in hardship, a network of practical needs and ideals, and a rediscovery of civil society as something more powerful than government, more enriching than finances, and more social than anything social media can attempt.  It is only actualized by doing, not by preaching, or soapboxing, or manufacturing press releases.   It takes the word “capital” and recaptures it back to its original sense of a place where people gather to make decisions instead of leaving it as some kind of financial resource.Social capital has little to do with people holding money in common.  The capital we are talking about here is cooperation, collaboration, the putting aside of differences, the use of the political to locate common ground instead of mud to throw.  It includes those historic and shared virtues like truth-telling, the importance of personal stories, the following through on promises, forgiveness, collective and individual, restitution, the essence of faith, and the transformation of collective action.The core of social capital, its ultimate reason for existence, is for the public good, not private enrichment.  This is perhaps too much to ask on a regular basis, since all of us need a measure of selfishness and a certain preoccupation with our own activities.  But in a crisis – war, economic depression, natural disasters, and, yes, a pandemic – the ability to put one's personal pursuits aside in an effort to achieve the security of the greater good is not only possible, but historically quite prevalent and doable.If we don't capture the spirit of our unique possibilities of rediscovering social capital during this time of not only national, but global crisis, then the post-COVID-19 future will proceed without us – devoid of our input, stripped of our ideals, and ultimately uncaring of our tomorrows or our children's tomorrows.We need to rediscover a more hopeful future, but also a more empowered “us.”  We can hope or we can build, but we certainly can no longer merely watch.Glen Pearson was a career professional firefighter and is a former Member of Parliament from southwestern Ontario. He and his wife adopted three children from South Sudan and reside in London, Ontario. He has been the co-director of the London Food Bank for 32 years. He writes regularly for the London Free Press and also shares his views on a blog entitled “The Parallel Parliament“. Follow him on twitter @GlenPearson.