One Sunday in July 2014, a man boarded a plane in Monrovia, Liberia, and flew to Lagos, Nigeria. He felt ill with a fever when the trip began and was in worse shape by the time he landed. Nigerian authorities took him to a hospital, where doctors eventually diagnosed Ebola.
From this first patient, infections quickly began to spread in Lagos, which is Africa’s most densely populated city. It was the most terrifying time in any Ebola outbreak, said Dr Thomas Frieden, former head of the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention.
But two months later, the crisis was over. Nigeria has no more Ebola cases and less than 10 people, including the man from Liberia, have died. How did Nigeria prevent an epidemic? It wasn’t science, or at least not science as people generally define it. It was more basic than that.
An overview of Covid
Nigeria has succeeded through a combination of good governance and organizational competence. Officials conducted around 18,500 in-person interviews with people potentially exposed to the Ebola virus, then transferred those who appeared at risk to isolation wards. They were released if they tested negative and transferred to another isolation room if they tested positive.
More recently, these same types of logistics have helped some countries fare better against Covid-19 than others. Canada has suffered only 37 percent more deaths per capita than the United States, in part thanks to tighter travel restrictions. Vietnam and some other Asian countries have benefited from early contact tracing. Britain and Israel are now faring better than mainland Europe not because of laboratory findings, but thanks to more efficient vaccine distribution.
The pattern extends far beyond infectious diseases like Covid and Ebola. The greatest human achievement of the last century is the near doubling of lifespan, as Steven Johnson argues in this weekend’s Times Magazine cover story. Johnson calls it “Our Extra Life”. This is all the more remarkable considering that average longevity barely budged – around 35 years – for most of recorded history, until the 18th century.
Since then, science has played a crucial role in advancements, including the development of antibiotics, vaccines, and drugs to treat cancer and heart disease. Yet scientific discoveries often take decades to affect the lives of most people. And basic sanitation measures, such as hand washing, are sometimes even more important. Johnson writes:
These breakthroughs may have been initiated by scientists, but it took the work of activists, public intellectuals and legal reformers to bring their benefits to ordinary citizens. From this perspective, the doubling of human lifespan is an achievement that approaches something like universal suffrage or the abolition of slavery: progress that required new social movements, new forms of persuasion and new types of public institutions to establish themselves.
Politics as a lifeline
I wanted to highlight Johnson’s essay because I think he shines a light on many of the biggest global challenges today, like Covid and climate change. At first glance, they may appear to be technical issues. In truth, they are more political than technical.
Scientists have already invented amazing Covid vaccines; the question is how quickly can the world produce and distribute 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 decide to prioritize tackling climate change.
A similar dynamic also applies to many major economic issues. There is no great mystery about how to reduce inequality and raise the standard of living of most Americans. Raising taxes on the rich, which are historically low, and putting that money into everyone’s hands, would make a real difference. But that doesn’t mean it will happen.
Americans sometimes like to dismiss politics as a dirty business, disconnected from the things that really matter – science, health, and everyday life. And while politics can certainly be dirty, it also remains the most powerful mechanism for human progress.
THE LAST NEWS
Live entertainment returns
“We’re already seeing all kinds of live performances starting to come back,” says our colleague Michael Paulson, who covers the theater. “The rules change quickly and vary across the United States”
Theaters have reopened in Chicago, Houston, San Diego and other cities. In New York City, several venues – including the Shed, the Guggenheim Museum, and select Off Broadway theaters – cater to audiences, and Shakespeare in the Park will return this summer. “There are a few more each week,” says Michael.
Last week, soprano Renée Fleming gave a performance in Manhattan that The Times’ Julia Jacobs called a success and an example of the challenges live performances face: Organizers spent $ 2,500 on Covid testing.
“Wow, applause!” Fleming said after his opening number. “Very exciting.”
Uncertainty still abounds. Early shows will only sell limited tickets, which means the savings won’t add up for many venues. But the audience seems to want to come back, Michael told us, “People are hungry to go out.” – Claire Moses, morning writer
PLAY, WATCH, EAT
What to cook
Yesterday’s Spelling Bee pangrams were attack and nailing. Here is today’s puzzle – or you can play it online.
Here are today’s mini crosswords and a hint: type of tomato (four letters).
If you want to play more, find all of our games here.
Thanks for spending part of your morning with The Times. See you Monday. – David
PS Times White House reporter Zolan Kanno-Youngs has been receiving calls for years destined for Roller World, a beloved Massachusetts ice rink with a similar phone number. “I kind of have a script,” he told Boston magazine.
You can see the first printed page of the day here.
There is no new episode of “The Daily”. Instead, listen to the latest episode of “Odessa”. On “Still Processing”, Cathy Park Hong discusses finding a cure in rage.