On a Sunday in July 2014, a man boarded a plane in Monrovia, Liberia, and flew to Lagos, Nigeria. He felt sick with a fever when the trip began and was in worse shape by the time he landed. The Nigerian authorities took him to a hospital, where doctors eventually diagnosed Ebola.
From that first patient, infections soon began to spread in Lagos, which is Africa’s most densely populated city. It was the most terrifying period during any Ebola outbreak, Dr. Thomas Frieden, the former head of the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, has said.
But two months later, the crisis was over. Nigeria had no more Ebola cases, and fewer than 10 people, including the man from Liberia, had died. How did Nigeria prevent an epidemic? It wasn’t science, or at least not science as people typically define it. It was more basic than that.
A Covid preview
Nigeria succeeded through a combination of good governance and organizational competence. Officials conducted roughly 18,500 in-person interviews with people potentially exposed to the Ebola virus and then moved those who seemed to be at risk into isolation wards. They were released if they tested negative and moved to a different isolation ward if they tested positive.
only 37 percent as many deaths per capita as the U.S., thanks partly to tighter travel restrictions. Vietnam and some other Asian countries benefited from intense early contact tracing. Britain and Israel are now doing better than continental Europe not because of laboratory discoveries but because of more effective vaccine distribution.
The pattern extends far beyond infectious diseases like Covid and Ebola. The greatest human accomplishment of the last century is the near doubling of life spans, as Steven Johnson argues in the cover story in this weekend’s Times Magazine. Johnson refers to it as “Our Extra Life.” It is all the more remarkable when you consider that average longevity barely budged — around 35 years — for most of recorded history, into the 18th century.
Since then, science has played a crucial role in progress, including the development of antibiotics, vaccines and drugs to treat cancer and heart disease. Yet scientific discoveries often take decades to affect most people’s lives. And basic health measures, like hand washing, are sometimes even more important. Johnson writes:
Those breakthroughs might have been initiated by scientists, but it took the work of activists and public intellectuals and legal reformers to bring their benefits to everyday people. From this perspective, the doubling of human life span is an achievement that is closer to something like universal suffrage or the abolition of slavery: progress that required new social movements, new forms of persuasion and new kinds of public institutions to take root.
amazing Covid vaccines; the question is how quickly the world can produce and dispense them. Scientists have also developed technologies that produce energy with relatively little pollution. Yes, further technical progress is important, but the bigger question is when political leaders and voters will decide to prioritize the fight against climate change.