Bloomberg News

One of the many ways the world failed to distinguish itself in 2014 was with its response to the Ebola crisis. It cannot afford to be so late, slow and fatally inadequate this year – with Ebola, which continues to kill people in West Africa, or with the next global pandemic.

Consider, first, how a competent response to Ebola might have played out: A year ago, the health workers in Guinea who saw the first cases would have had the training to recognize it and the equipment to treat it without infecting themselves and others. They didn’t, and the disease spread quickly to Liberia and Sierra Leone. Ideally, then, doctors there would have diagnosed Ebola, and traced and quarantined everyone who had contact with the victims. Crucially, they would have alerted the World Health Organization. As it happened, the WHO wasn’t told of the outbreak until March.

At that point, in a best-case scenario, with local health care systems overwhelmed, the WHO would have intervened with a team of well-equipped doctors and nurses. Such a team didn’t exist, and it took the WHO until August even to declare a public health emergency, and several weeks beyond that to come up with a response plan.

And so the total number of infections is now more than 12,000, with some 7,700 dead.

Countries and the WHO need to change before the next outbreak – of Ebola, SARS, bird flu or whatever it turns out to be. Every country needs hospitals and laboratories capable of diagnosing, safely treating and monitoring disease. The WHO needs improved surveillance and reporting systems, as well as the capacity to send medical teams when needed.

Of all the grave issues on which the nations of the world manage to cooperate, including economic and military matters, public health is arguably the most urgent – and the most rational. Ebola has made that very clear.