It was the nightmare that wasn’t.
On July 20, 2014, as West Africa struggled to quash a historically large outbreak of Ebola, an infected man carried the virus to Lagos, Nigeria—Africa’s largest city. In that dense throng of 21 million people, many of whom travel extensively, it seemed that Ebola would be impossible to track and contain.
But Nigeria was ready. In the previous years, it has been using investments and support from the United States and other countries to boost its efforts to eradicate polio. When Ebola came, it swiftly redirected all of that infrastructure at the problem, including an emergency operations center, a crack team of epidemiologists trained by the U.S. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC), and GPS systems that could be used to track potential cases. In the end, Nigeria brought Ebola to heel in just three months, with only 19 cases and eight deaths.
The country’s spectacular success is a testament to the decisive actions of its government and health workers. But it also shows how important it is for rich countries to bolster the capacities of poorer ones, where outbreaks are most likely to begin due to weaker health systems and dense populations. No nation can tackle the problem of epidemics alone. In a world in which someone with a deadly virus can fly to any other continent in less than a day, the United States is connected to the entire planet’s diseases. And so, to protect itself, it must protect everyone else. As Rebecca Katz from Georgetown University once said to me, “If your desire is to keep disease out of your country, the best way to do that is to contain it at the source.”