In 2014, the Ebola virus wreaked havoc on West Africa. Liberia, hit the hardest, saw more than 10,000 cases, and 4,800 people lost their lives.
One of the major roadblocks to the Liberian Ebola response efforts was the lack of reliable internet access across the country, as community health centers struggled to coordinate efforts.
The very act of physically passing Ebola patient information out of the infected red zone risked exposing people in the green zone. While entire towns and communities were being physically quarantined, the lack of internet connectivity also cut these communities’ virtual ties from the rest of the world. If Liberia had better internet access during the outbreak, important patient information could have been scanned and uploaded for analysis anywhere in the world, cutting exposures and improving tracking to prevent the virus’s spread.
It’s not just about disease. It’s about technology promoting efficiency and improving lives. Currently, more than 60 percent of the world’s population still lacks access to the internet. That is three billion people left out of the largest technological transformations of our time — causing them to fall even further behind on economic growth, health and education.
One of the most economical and efficient ways to increase access is to prioritize a “build-once” policy in the developing world. If a United States development project supports the construction of a rural road in a developing country, or updating preexisting infrastructure, let’s invite the private sector to lay down cable before we pour the concrete.
This is a proactive, efficient approach we are calling for through the bipartisan Digital Global Access Policy Act — a.k.a. the Digital GAP Act — passed by the U.S. House of Representatives last week.
Years ago, during a $100 million road construction project in Liberia, the decision was made not to lay the cables, which would have only cost $1 million more to complete. That lack of connectivity cost lives and impeded economic growth. To go in and add those cables today requires a new construction project costing tens of millions of dollars.
The Digital GAP Act would increase internet access with a relatively minor communications change. It would require U.S.-supported infrastructure projects to be made more transparent, so that the private sector can coordinate their investments in internet infrastructure.
We are maximizing the impact and reach of existing U.S. taxpayer-dollar assistance, providing more strategic support to disadvantaged communities and making it easier for businesses to invest. It’s a win-win-win.
Increased access to high-speed internet wouldn’t have just helped us in the Ebola epidemic; it has the ability to help us right this moment. Currently, many of our communities are struggling with containing the Zika virus, which disproportionately impacts women and infants. And while our current containment strategy requires notifying travelers as to where the virus is present, in many developing countries, officials have no way of tracking whether their communities are afflicted.
As a result, expecting moms may not even be aware that the virus exists in their communities, and are therefore not taking the necessary, widely available precautions. What’s even worse is women traveling to these regions are unaware of the presence of this virus. Zika presents a serious threat to women and families in the U.S., but the virus doesn’t stop at our borders. Making sure any vulnerable populations are aware of the risk of exposure could be as easy as a click of a mouse or a swipe of a mobile application.
By encouraging a “build-once” policy we would be laying the groundwork for high-speed internet that’s as globally ubiquitous as mobile phones. In this reimagined world, a local community physician could simply log on to the internet and report a new health threat in their community. This simple change in international development strategy could dramatically benefit the lives of those living in communities afflicted by the virus and those considering travel to those regions.
The internet has fundamentally transformed the way we do business, educate our youth and save lives. By promoting access to the internet around the world and modernizing our approach to humanitarian and international development programs, the Digital GAP Act stretches American aid further and has the potential for a long-lasting impact by narrowing the digital divide that holds so many people back.
This article originally appeared on Recode.net.