“What We’re Dealing with Now Is a New Pandemic”

Can We Stop a Super Coronavirus?

The new variants of the coronavirus are even more dangerous than those known so far. Researchers and politicians fear a sharp increase in the number of infections, with dramatic consequences like those seen in Britain. Can Germany still stop the new killers?

By Matthias Bartsch, Felix Bohr, Rafaela von Bredow, Hubert Gude, Veronika Hackenbroch, Martin Knobbe, Kerstin Kullmann, Cornelia Schmergal, Thomas Schulz, Gerald Traufetter und Steffen Winter

The student didn’t really stand out among the nearly 700 cases of the coronavirus recorded by the public health department in Berlin’s Steglitz-Zehlendorf district during the week before Christmas. 

The young woman was home for the holidays to visit her family, having traveled back to Germany from the university where she is studying in the United Kingdom. 

It appeared to be an everyday case of the coronavirus in the affluent southern part of Berlin.

Indeed, it wasn’t all that surprising she had caught the virus, given that infection numbers were skyrocketing in Britain at that point.

But the student also infected her entire family, five people, which is pretty uncommon.

Just as her infection was discovered, British Prime Minister Boris Johnson had begun sounding the alarm: B.1.1.7, the new and far more contagious variant of the virus, was spreading in southeast England, he warned. 

The response came quickly: Flights to and from Britain were cancelled and the Eurotunnel was closed to traffic. By then, though, the mutated virus had long since begun spreading across Europe.

It was by coincidence that an employee at the Steglitz-Zehlendorf public health department had experienced the ebola pandemic in West Africa and had also earned a doctorate in virology. 

Shortly before Christmas, she made a call to the laboratory at the Robert Koch-Institute (RKI), Germany’s center for disease control, and asked to have the genome sequence of the student’s positive viral sample decoded.

The result arrived on Jan. 7. The student was found to be carrying the new B.1.1.7 variant of the virus.

Then, last week, the first case of B.1.351, a mutant of the coronavirus from South Africa, was detected in the southern German state of Baden-Württemberg. It’s also thought to be much more contagious than previous variants. 

It had been brought into the state by a family that had arrived back from South Africa in mid-December.

The family had quarantined themselves as required under coronavirus regulations, and five days later they received a negative result after getting tested. 

But family members developed symptoms of the disease a week later. By then, six people from three different households had been infected.

In the neighboring state of Bavaria, there are also now three confirmed cases of coronavirus mutants and one suspected case. 

One patient who had become infected with the British variant was brought to a Munich hospital for treatment around the New Year has since passed away.

"The new variant of the virus has arrived in Germany," says Clemens Wendtner, chief physician at the München Klinik hospital in Munich’s Schwabing district. It must be a feeling of déjà-vu for the physician, who also treated the very first known German COVID-19 patients last February. 

"The next few weeks will be decisive,” Wendtner says. "It's possible that the pandemic will take on a whole new momentum.”

Chancellor Merkel wearing an FFP2 mask: "Germany is facing eight to 10 difficult weeks." Foto: bildgehege / imago images

Three different new mutants of the novel coronavirus have begun spreading at break-neck speed around the world. 

They have two things in common: a very specific mutation – and they are far more effective at infecting people than previous versions, with the new variants likely up to 56 percent more infectious. 

There are also worries that they could prove less susceptible to some vaccines and that people who have already had COVID-19 could get infected again.

The cases that have been imported into the country so far demonstrate that it’s likely impossible to seal Germany off from the new variants. 

It’s probably just a matter of time before the super viruses begin spreading in Germany and Europe. And it’s quite possible that this has already happened.

For a long time, it seemed as if the world knew its enemy – a coronavirus that could be compared with its ancestor SARS and other coronaviruses like MERS. 

In small steps, we became more familiar with how the disease spreads and what we can do to best protect ourselves. 

We got to know the virus right down to the last molecule – so well that researchers were able to develop vaccines in record time, promising to help humanity out of the permanent lockdown.

We would, it seemed, bring SARS-CoV-2 under control in 2021.

Now, though, the virus is mutating – unfortunately in a direction that is likely to lead to many more victims.

There’s nothing particularly special about mutations, mutating is what viruses do. Mutations are often just copying errors in the genome. 

If they prove harmful to the virus, it perishes. If they help the virus, then it continues to multiply, further establishing itself in a population. And if they help the virus to very easily infect vast numbers of people, then they can quickly lead to exponential growth.

That’s exactly what is happening right now. The virus from Wuhan ravaged the world like a smoldering fire, but the pandemic now more closely resembles a sea of flames raging across the globe.

German Chancellor Angela Merkel, who, as a physicist, has an in-depth understanding of numerical models, is deeply concerned about the current developments. In recent days, she has been calling ministers, scientists and experts she trusts, asking for suggestions about what to do if the new virus mutants also spread in Germany.

She doesn’t share the hope of some that the current lockdown can drive the numbers down any time soon. "Germany is facing eight to 10 very tough weeks,” Merkel said last Tuesday. 

The next day, during a meeting of her cabinet, Merkel discussed what would have happened had France not barred people from entering the country from Ireland. 

She said it might have become necessary for Germany to set up controls at the border with France.

Experts at the German Health Ministry are also concerned. "We are taking the emerging variants of the novel SARS-CoV-2 coronavirus very seriously,” a source in the ministry says. 

"The developments show that we now have to be even more vigilant.” 

The source said it is expected that more cases will emerge in Germany and that outbreaks will occur due to the new variant. "Initial studies suggest that this variant is even more easily transmissible and has an increased reproduction number."

RKI President Lothar Wieler came to a similar conclusion on Thursday. Responding to the new mutants, he warned: "There’s a possibility that the situation could get worse.

Europeans are especially worried about the mutant discovered in Britain because it is close, because there is so much contact between the island and the Continent.

The pandemic now more closely resembles a sea of flames raging across the globe.

But the B.1.351 variant discovered in South Africa and the B.1.1.248 mutant found in Brazil and Japan are no less harmful than their British cousin. 

On the contrary. They contain another mutation in their genetic material – E484K – which could prove to be very dangerous. 

It’s likely that it weakens the human immune response – and could even render some of the newly developed vaccines less effective. Pharmaceutical companies are currently testing the efficacy of their vaccines against the new mutants.

The mutation N501Y that is common to the new variants is located at a central position of the pathogen: on the spikes that are the source of the coronavirus’ name. 

SARS-CoV-2 uses the spike protein’s receptor binding domain to latch on to the host cell and invade it. 

Scientists believe the mutation makes it easier for the virus to latch on to host cells.

Once the new variants have infected the host, the disease proceeds just as it has in previous variants: They aren’t more lethal than the original coronaviruses. 

That, though, is hardly reassuring: Because the mutants are able to infect so many more people, they are capable of causing more fatalities than would a mutant that made people sicker but which was less contagious.

Adam Kucharski, a mathematician at the London School of Hygiene and Tropical Medicine has calculated the cruel logic of exponential growth: "An increase in something that grows exponentially," Kucharski explains, talking about the transmisson of the virus, "can have far more effect than the same proportional increase in something that just scales an outcome," like the severity of the illness the virus causes.

And physician Eric Topol of the Scripps Research Translational Institute in California wrote on Twitter: "If we wanted to get serious vs. B.1.1.7 … vaccinate 24/7 like it’s an emergency. Because it is.”

In places where the mutants begin spreading rapidly, they quickly displace their less contagious relatives, and right now the new variants are raging across Britain, South Africa and Brazil. In Ireland, the infection curve was pointing almost straight up. 

"Last year, there were dozens of different SARS-CoV-2 variants circulating here at the same time," reports bioinformatician and geneticist Tulio de Oliveira, who heads one of South Africa's largest sequencing labs at the University of KwaZulu-Natal in Durban. 

"Now, we're seeing that up to 90 percent of infections are with the new variant,” he says.

The crucial question is this: Can the mutants still be stopped – and if so, how? 

"There is a real risk that the more transmissible B.1.1.7 will overtake the existing variants and cause another wave before widespread vaccination," says Kevin Esvelt, director of the Sculpting Evolution group at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology.

Epidemiologist Emma Hodcroft: "We are providing the virus with a playground." Foto: Roland Schmid / 13 Photo

The variant from Britain has long since taken root in Denmark, too. "It's really a game changer”, says Tyra Grove Krause, head of department at Denmark’s Staten Serum Institut. 

"It’s a whole different situation.” 

Be it in Switzerland, the Netherlands or the United States – wherever viral genomes are now being sequenced, researchers are coming across traces of the English mutant. 

The B.1.351 variant from South Africa has already spread into neighboring Botswana, but the first cases have also been detected in Britain – as if one mutant were now competing against the other.

A variant of the coronavirus from Brazil also popped up in Japan in early January. Evidence is also mounting that the Brazilian and South African mutants can infect people who have already had COVID-19.

That would mean that there is either no immunity to the new variants, or that such immunity is weak. Future research will have to determine whether that is the case. No one knows yet what the implications of the mutations are.

What we do know, though, is that the combination of the one common mutation together with certain other changes in the genome has produced variants that are highly contagious. Is this the coronavirus of the future? 

Will each variant now mutate in ways to make it more contagious, creating deadly perfection?

"I think that the virus is just finding its optimal configuration”, says Cillian De Gascun, director of the National Virus Reference Laboratory at University College Dublin. 

That the same mutation occurred in all the variants independently of each other suggests "that this is a configuration that the virus likes,” says De Gascun. "And there's no reason to believe that it won't become more efficient over time.” 

Experiments are now underway at major biomedical laboratories in South Africa, as well as at vaccine manufacturers, to determine whether the biggest worry of all is justified: that the vaccines will be less effective against the various new variants. Those experiments include exposing the virus to the blood serum of vaccinated patients.

If the virus survives, then humanity has a big problem.

"What we’re dealing with now is a new pandemic," says epidemiologist Kucharski. It could turn out that what we have learned so far and the methods that have been used to combat the disease are no longer valid. 

Against that backdrop, the researcher recommends that new variants be treated "as a new threat, not thinking, 'well, we've already got lots of COVID cases, so this is just a bit more of the same problem'."

But how is it that such malignant new variants of the virus emerged so suddenly and simultaneously? 

As epidemiologist Emma Hodcroft from the Institute of Social and Preventive Medicine at the University of Bern explains, the common mutation has already occurred several times in the various coronavirus variants whose genetic material was examined last year – and remained inconspicuous.

"It is likely," the British-American scientist explains, "that it is a combination of different mutations plus N501Y that really changes the virus and makes it more transmissible."

In the year since the virus was discovered, a race has been on between SARS-CoV-2 and the human immune system. 

The virus, initially unrecognizable to the body’s defenses, infects cells, thus triggering a response from the immune system, which learns about the enemy – its receptor binding domain, for example – and develops antibodies that bind to the virus and take it out of commission. 

When SARS-CoV-2 attacks humans again, they already have antibodies. The virus is intercepted and no longer has a chance.

Coffins with victims of the coronavirus at the city crematorium in the city of Meissen in Saxony, Germany: Many state governors were late in recognizing how serious the situation had become. Foto: Maja Hitij / Getty Images

But it turns out that an incidental change in the genetic material provides a considerable advantage to the intruder: The mutation alters the point of recognition for human antibodies, thus making the virus more difficult for the immune system to detect. 

This means that the human body is forced to start almost from scratch when building up a defense.

Many virologists don’t believe it to be a coincidence that these kinds of mutations have arisen in parts of the world that had problems controlling the first wave of the virus – areas like the Eastern Cape of South Africa and Manaus in Brazil, places with poor health care and considerable poverty. 

"In areas where lots of people have already been infected, the original coronavirus may not have been able to reinfect them," explains Hodcroft, who calls herself a "virus hunter" on Twitter. "In those areas the virus has a lot to gain with a mutation that enables it to do so.”

In Germany, where the first wave was mild, SARS-CoV-2 would be less likely to mutate in that way. But in other places, viral evolution took place in fast-forward.

Given the speed, Tulio de Oliveira, the genetics professor from South Africa, believes that similar mutants have evolved in other places. 

"I wouldn’t be surprised if this kind of variants keep emerging in countries that haven’t gotten the pandemic under control for a long time,” he says. "Places like the U.S., for example, or Russia, but also Spain or Italy."

Meanwhile, mutants that are perfectly adapted to the host can also arise when a pathogen is able to persist and multiply for a long time in the body of a patient whose immune system is compromised – as a result of chemotherapy or radiation therapy, for example. 

"And so the virus has a really long time to figure out how to co-exist with the human immune system," explains Emma Hodcroft. "It's got all the tipps and tricks for living within humans." 

The mutants that survive and continue to reproduce are those that are particularly adept at deceiving the immune system.

If you had asked her a few months ago how likely it was that dangerous SARS-CoV-2 mutants would be created in this way and spread through the population, Hodcraft says, she would have replied that, "this probably isn't one of our biggest concerns" right now. 

"But when we have so many people infected, we allow the virus to get into these unique, weird scenarios. We are providing it with a playground.”

De Oliveira’s discovery of the South African variant earned him a bottle of wine, but he’s not exactly proud of it. 

He’s still fond of sharing how he got it because the anecdote casts light on what is so important to him and all scientists working in the fight against the disease right now: It illustrates how tremendously well they work together, across time zones and countries.

De Oliveira, a Brazilian-South African researcher, was alerted to the variant by clinicians and hospital workers in the Eastern Cape province. 

"They noticed that the second wave was coming much faster than the first,” he reports. 

"It struck them as being odd.” They contacted him and sent samples, which de Oliveira and his team then sequenced. They got the results on Dec. 1.

"We were shocked,” says de Oliveira. He’s sitting in his office in the modern laboratory building in Durban. 

With his bright, short-sleeved shirt and ponytail, he looks more like a surfer than a genetics professor. "In all 11 samples, which came from the same source, we found the same virus, and that was unusual,” he says. 

More importantly, the find was different from the previously known variants: Oliveira and his team were able to identify 23 mutations, including N501Y and E484K.

Oliveira felt it was time to sound the alarm. He informed his boss and then immediately contacted the World Health Organization (WHO).

He won the bottle of wine because when he asked Stellenbosch university virologist Susan Engelbrecht if she could test her samples from early December for the mutation, he also made a bet with her that it would be found in more than half the samples.

She thought it was out of the question given that Stellenbosch is located a full 700 kilometers away from the local outbreak that had taken place in Eastern Cape. "She then texted me in the middle of the night: 'Oh God, I lost my bet.’”

But de Oliveira won’t get the bottle of wine until the virus is contained, because South Africa has not only cleared beaches and banned parties in the lockdown, but also banned alcohol.

Oliveira then contacted Andrew Rambaut, a colleague in Edinburgh, Scotland, on Dec. 1, and asked him to take a look at his strange findings. A few days later, de Oliveira received an email from Rambaut. 

In it, Rambaut reported a similar disturbing finding in the UK. They had also detected the presence of the N501Y mutation, but in a different variant of the virus. On Dec. 19, Rambaut published a paper about the new English variant of COVID-19. 

Rambaut would later tweet that de Oliveira had given him the idea to look for N501Y.

Medical workers at a temporary medical station in Pretoria, South Africa: The second wave hit far faster than the first. Foto: Phill Magakoe / AFP

The damage that a more contagious variant can do – in this case B.1.1.7 – is on full display in Britain at the moment. 

"What I hope is that we've given a warning to the rest of the world that this is a serious problem”, says Jeffrey Barrett from the Wellcome Sanger Institute in Cambridge, where the genetic material of several thousand positive virus samples is sequenced and analyzed every week. 

The third report from Public Health England, which Barrett worked on, shows how quickly B.1.1.7 has spread in Britain. 

The first known time the variant was detected was in a sample dating back to Sept. 20. Around mid-November, its share of COVID-19 infections increased significantly. 

Just before Christmas, around 60 percent of all new coronavirus cases in London were attributable to B.1.1.7, thus ending the holidays for Barrett.

Despite the immediate imposition of a strict lockdown, the number of infections still skyrocketed, with Johns Hopkins University reporting over 60,000 new infections a day on multiple occasions. 

The share of the B.1.1.7 variant in London and the southeast of England has now risen significantly again and is in the process of spreading across the entire country.

"We saw it probably as quickly as any country could have seen it”, says Barrett. But B.1.1.7 was already too widespread. "So it was impossible to slow down.” 

The situation in the country has taken a very dramatic turn. 

Doctors are even speaking of war-like conditions in some of the hopelessly overcrowded hospitals.

In Britain, it has become abundantly clear that a half-hearted lockdown was not enough to combat the new mutant. 

In November, at a time when there were some restrictions, but schools remained open and many people continued to go to work as normal, B.1.1.7 was able to spread deeper into the population.

Only now, with a strict lockdown in place, have case numbers started to fall, but much more slowly than with the old variants.

"I know people are exhausted, everyone in the world is exhausted,” says Barrett. "But I would recommend Germany to try to introduce restrictions or strengthen restrictions to bring case numbers down as much as feasibly possible.” 

Merkel's Chancellery also believes that it is urgently necessary to keep tough measures in place or even to intensify them – for as long as it takes to reduce the 7-day incidence rate back down to 50 cases per 100,000 people so that health officials can resume tracking individual cases and breaking infection chains through quarantine measures.

But will people continue to accept corona restrictions once numbers sink again? And more importantly: Will Germany's governors, many of whom have continually been slow to recognize the threat and who ultimately have the power over implementing many of them, go along with even stricter measures?

Even in spring, tendencies emerged that Merkel viewed with mistrust. In April, the chancellor railed against the growing tendency among state leaders to focus their attentions on reopening the economy rather than on controlling the virus. 

Now, she is concerned that, with numbers slowly falling, she won't be able to resist public pressure to begin loosening one measure after the next, thus triggering a disastrous domino effect. 

That, she fears, would quickly drive numbers up again.

Already, in fact, some states are no longer adhering to the measures agreed to in the Jan. 5 meeting between Merkel and the state governors. 

In North Rhine-Westphalia, for example, Governor Armin Laschet, who was elected chairman of the center-right Christian Democratic Union (CDU) party on Sunday, never fulfilled his pledge to strictly implement all of the measures. 

In the state's rules, measures limiting social contacts only apply to public spaces and not to private living quarters. In homes, only parties were forbidden.

In the city-state of Bremen, meanwhile, state leader Andreas Bovenschulte unilaterally introduced a program to test schoolchildren in an effort to keep schools open. In Hesse, measures for limiting contacts in private living spaces are merely recommendations and not rules. And Lower Saxony even reopened elementary schools on Monday.

States under the leadership of the center-left Social Democratic Party (SPD) have been particularly skeptical of Merkel's warning. The chancellor, according to a source in one SPD-run state capital, is apparently trying to prepare the populace for an extension of the lockdown until Easter.

To see what can happen if coronavirus measures are loosened as the new mutant is spreading, all you have to do is look at Ireland, where case numbers rocketed upward after Christmas. The few sequencing results from Ireland show that while less than 10 percent of positive tests at Christmas were caused by B.1.1.7, that share had risen to 45 percent by the middle of January.

"There's no reason to believe that the virus won't become more efficient over time."

Patrick Mallon is a professor of microbial diseases in the University College Dublin School of Medicine and a consultant in infectious diseases at St Vincent’s University Hospital in Dublin. 

He looks tired, having just finished treating patients. For our Zoom interview, he takes off his mask. 

"My normal work is supposed to be 50 percent working in clinical infectious diseases and the other 50 percent, I am supposed to be working in research. At the moment, it's very difficult for me to do anything other than clinical work."

Four of the hospital’s wards are fully committed to care for COVID-19 patients at the moment. "And we are admitting probably between another half and one full ward per day,” says Mallon. 

Doctors are trying to get enough people discharged from hospitals. "But unfortunately, the people that are coming are very sick and require long hospital admissions. So it's a very worrying set of numbers.” 

For a long time, it looked as though Ireland would get through the pandemic relatively unscathed. 

But the country also never tried to push case numbers down to zero in the way that both Australia and New Zealand did, instead hoping to be able to manage the pandemic to the degree possible. 

But then, corona measures were loosened in December, triggering the current calamity.

On Dec. 23, B.1.1.7 was detected for the first time in Ireland. "It was right before Christmas and we didn't feel the variant was a concern at that point in time," recalls National Virus Reference Laboratory Director De Gascun. "But at that stage, in many respects, I sense that the damage was done."

Many in Ireland celebrated Christmas with their families, driving across the country to do so. "It was the perfect storm," says Mary Horgan, physician, expert in infectious diseases and president of the Royal College of Physicians of Ireland.

Mallon believes that it was a mistake to allow case numbers to simmer at a low level rather than try to stamp out the virus. "I think that what we're experiencing is the inevitable outcome of that strategy,” he says. 

"I think that this is a lesson that governments around Europe should learn. What is happening in Ireland shows just how vulnerable countries are that are trying to live with the virus – and that it's becoming increasingly more difficult to do that dealing with the new variant of the virus. What's happened in Ireland really just shows you how unpredictable this virus is.” 

Health expert Tyra Grove Krause of Denmark: "The calm before the storm" Foto: Claus Boesen / Media Press

In Germany, Federal Health Minister Jens Spahn already finds himself confronted with accusations that he acted too late. 

Carsten Schneider, deputy floor leader for the SPD in parliament, referred to it on Wednesday as a "race against time for human life."

Last Monday, Spahn introduced two draft regulations designed to impede the spread of the new virus variants. The first one requires travelers from countries where the mutants are circulating to present a negative coronavirus test before being allowed to enter Germany. 

Airlines are to demand the tests during check-in. In general, those returning from risk areas will have to prove within 48 hours that they are not infected with SARS-CoV-2.

"Trips abroad to risk areas are inconsistent with the pandemic situation," Spahn said.

With the second regulation, Spahn wants to ensure that Germany finally begins systematically searching for mutations in the virus genome. 

The goal is "the rapid detection of virus variants whose mutations represent a particular threat," he said – those that spread more quickly, trigger more severe symptoms or do not respond as well to vaccination or previous infection.

Specifically, the regulation would require laboratories and hospitals to sequence 5 percent of all PCR tests and send the results to RKI. Once the number of new infections is pushed below 140,000 in two weeks, up to 10 percent of the tests could be sequenced.

With laboratories already complaining about a lack of capacity, the regulation comes with a monetary incentive: For each test sequenced and reported to RKI, laboratories will receive 200 euros. 

The federal government in Berlin has earmarked a budget of 200 million euros for the program.

Thus far, RKI says it only has data from the sequencing of 3,000 virus genomes – far less than Denmark and the UK. In the future, RKI is to receive anonymized results that include the patient's age, gender, the first three numbers of their postal code and the date on which the sample was taken.

Christian Drosten, head virologist at Berlin's Charité University Hospital and the leading German expert on the coronavirus, supports "establishing a direct link between routine laboratory testing and RKI." 

That, he says, "is surely the most efficient way to collect a relatively large number of sequences in a short time while integrating the important reporting data." Without that information, sequencing would be a lot less valuable, Drosten told DER SPIEGEL.

"I can only advise Germany to introduce stringent restrictions and see it through."

But he also calls on diagnostic laboratories to avoid "depending entirely on the sequencing." It takes quite a lot of time, he notes, particularly given that such analyses are generally only performed every few days after gathering a number of samples.

Drosten has a pragmatic alternative in mind: the implementation of a mutation PCR. Essentially, the idea is a PCR test that only identifies the N501Y mutation. "If that test comes back positive," the virologist says, "then we can start testing for other mutations."

It is a strategy for slowly closing in on the culprit. Is it from South Africa, England or Brazil? 

The diagnosis is then to be reported to the sender as quickly as possible "so that contact tracing can begin without delay."

Public health departments also have to gear up for the new mutants as quickly as possible, and RKI has revised its recommendations to help make that happen. 

Should there be indications or a suspicion that a new infection has been caused by a new variant, contact tracing for that case should be prioritized. The top priority is that of "preventing infection chains from the new mutant," says an RKI spokeswoman.

Thus far, contacts have been allowed to cut short their quarantine period if they could present a negative test after 10 days. But that will now change. According to the new RKI recommendations: "In cases in which the infection is proven to have come from a new variant of SARS-CoV-2, as initially isolated in England and South Africa, no reduction of the 14-day quarantine should be allowed."

Merkel's cabinet is also examining new measures: Do border controls have to be reintroduced to protect against the mutants? 

Should the federal government withdraw the right of states to draw up their own measures, a move that would require parliamentary approval? 

Should there be a nationwide requirement that FFP2 masks be worn as is currently the case in Bavaria, or would that give people a false sense of security? 

Is a regulation necessary to force employers to allow more of their staff to work from home? Should the number of passengers in buses and subways be limited, or should public transportation systems be shut down entirely?

That last question was apparently submitted to the Transport Ministry, but officials there voiced concern that such a step could interrupt supply lines. 

The chancellor also ultimately voiced her opposition to the measure.

Denmark could offer a blueprint for dealing with the mutants. The country had already been shaken by another new virus variant that had appeared in minks, but which could be passed to humans. 

Then, in mid-December, the country discovered its first cases of the British mutant B.1.1.7. 

The government reacted quickly and decisively.

"We found out very quickly that only some of the cases had epidemiological links to the U.K., so there were signs of community transmission already at this early stage,” says Tyra Grove Krause of Denmark’s Staten Serum Institut. 

Since then, the fight against B.1.1.7 has had top priority. "In this month, we're going to genome sequence every single positive sample,” says Krause. 

The new variant climbed from representing 0.3 percent of all samples sequenced in November to 2.9 percent in early January. 

The number may seem low, but Krause is far from comforted. 

The mutant's share of total cases is growing exponentially. 

"We expect that B.1.1.7 will be the dominant variant in Denmark when we reach mid-February."

Denmark has been in lockdown since Dec. 11 and case numbers are dropping. 

The reproduction number, which refers to the average number of people to whom an infected person passes the virus, is now at 0.9. 

But Krause doesn't find that particularly reassuring either. 

"We think this is like the calm before the storm. We need to have a reproduction number below 0.7 if we want to avoid exponential growth in February and March."

Ultimately, it will be a race against time. Vaccinations have begun in Denmark, as well, and once the weather begins warming up in summer, there is hope that infection numbers will drop again. 

Until then, though, all efforts will be focused on delaying the spread of the new variant to the degree possible, says Krause. 

"So, the strategy now is to really get the case numbers down throughout January so that we have a low case count when this new variant starts to take over.” 

It isn't easy, Krause says, to explain to the population why it is so important right now to maintain the lockdown even as case numbers are sinking. 

"But what can you do? 

The threat is just around the corner." 

Donald Trump’s weaponised lies blew up in his face

US Capitol mayhem was the culmination of years of winking at violence

Simon Schama

     © Ingram Pinn


There was a moment, amid Wednesday's mayhem in the US Capitol, of revelatory confusion on the part of the invaders. 

Once through the smashed windows, it was unclear what was next on their agenda.

Back in 1783, when 400 mutinying American soldiers broke into the Confederation Congress to demand back pay, they made sure to hold the terrified members hostage until Alexander Hamilton persuaded them to lower their muskets.

This time, the horde wandered around like wide-eyed tourists; pausing to take a selfie, hoot fatuous lies from the Senate president's chair and steal the Speaker’s gavel from her office. 

As they tramped through the halls, they roared U-S-A, U-S-A while one of their number waved a Confederate battle flag. 

No wonder the statue of President Ulysses S Grant, who won the civil war for the Union, looked perplexed. 

It was a farce but no joke. Five people died. 

Terrified members of Congress were told to hit the floor, put on gas masks and remove their Congressional ID pins to avoid becoming a target for violence. 

When the Capitol was cleared, the refrain went up from many quarters that “this is not America”. Maybe.

Two Americas were on display on Wednesday. A redemptive version came in the run-off in Georgia for its US Senate seats. Huge voter turnout powered the victories of Raphael Warnock, the pastor of Ebenezer Baptist Church, where Martin Luther King Jr preached, and Jon Ossoff, the first Jewish senator from the Deep South. 

That a black man and a Jew now represent a state where the Ku Klux Klan was refounded in 1915, tells us that American inclusiveness has not yet been buried.

That is precisely what gets the goat of the opposite kind of America: white nativists riled up by a president whose political career was launched with the insistence that Barack Obama couldn’t possibly have been born in the US and be a “real American”.

Donald Trump refused to condemn the torchlight-carrying white supremacists of the 2017 Charlottesville march but portrayed the 2020 Black Lives Matter demonstrators as loot-crazed violent anarchists. 

He cast himself as the defender of a “true” America under siege from liberal pluralism and immigrant invasion. “They're coming for your suburbs” was the core message of his re-election campaign. 

Pandemic notwithstanding, Mr Trump resorted to mass rallies where he could once more feel the love and weaponise the hate. When Joe Biden won anyway, Mr Trump insisted — as he had pre-emptively warned before the vote — that the election must have been “rigged”.

The violent attempt to prevent Congress from certifying the electoral result should be seen in the context of Mr Trump's (not baseless) belief that a sizeable part of the country cares less about the constitution than it does about him.

Wednesday saw the most dramatic consummation of what has always been standard operational procedure for Trumpism: the wink to violence and the empire of lies. His 2016 campaign regularly featured invitations to rough up the media. 

At the Capitol this week, the mob put the boot in, literally, to piles of cameras and recording kit.

There are contenders galore for the most disgracefully mendacious speech of his presidency but Mr Trump's battle cry to his followers on Wednesday may have been his most malevolently deluded yet. 

He had been cheated not just of a victory but of a landslide; he had won before “an explosion of bullshit” (otherwise known as votes) landed. 

He would never concede. He and they must fight. “A trial by combat” his lawyer Rudy Giuliani explained, was at hand.

But as the invaders discovered, the Capitol is just a building capped by a cast iron dome. The true edifice of American democracy is an idea translated into a constitution, an expression of the 18th century belief that its faithful execution protects the republic from the naked exercise of raw power and despotic self-indulgence.

The Founding Fathers understood the perils of unrestrained party politics and the lure of adventurism, but they clung to the assumption that truth-based politics would prevail. 

Their nightmare appeared in the person of Josh Hawley. The Missouri senator made a bid to succeed Mr Trump by challenging the electoral results and claiming to give voice to those who thought that the election had been stolen.

As Mr Hawley proceeded with this feeble casuistry, his fellow Republican Mitt Romney, could be seen staring into the back of his neck with an expression of such contempt that no stiletto was needed. 

Senator Romney then retorted that the best way to show respect for those “upset” by the election result was “by telling them the truth”.

As calls for impeachment rose, Mr Trump appeared on Thursday night, with all the authenticity of a hostage video, to denounce the marauders. Never mind that he had embraced them the day before as “special”.

This condemnation may inch towards reality but also proposes a fresh lie, namely that Mr Trump has all along been a guardian of the democracy he has violated over and again. Yeah, right. 

The stain on his time in office is deep and indelible. 

As Thomas Jefferson wrote in another context “Truth is great and will prevail if left to herself.”

The writer is an FT contributing editor

The Covid Crisis Will Eventually End. The Recovery May Take a Lot Longer.

By Leslie P. Norton

Carmen Reinhart, chief economist of the World Bank, says there are limits to what central banks can do help the economy./ Photograph by Zack Wittman

Could a financial crisis follow the Covid-19 pandemic? It’s a frightening scenario, but one that’s entirely plausible, says Carmen Reinhart, chief economist of the World Bank. 

This week, the World Bank forecasted that world gross domestic product would grow by 4% this year, leaving economic activity below its level before the pandemic. 

And mounting debt and risky behavior related to the pandemic stimulus could threaten a fragile global recovery. 

Reinhart is a student of boom-bust cycles, sovereign debt defaults, and other financial debacles, as well as co-author, with Ken Rogoff, of the bestselling book, This Time Is Different: Eight Centuries of Financial Folly. 

In an interview with Barron’s, Reinhart described how all of the easy money in the world can’t lead us to prosperity, notwithstanding the stock market’s belief to the contrary. Edited excerpts follow.

Barron’s: You’ve said in the past that debt from the global financial crisis would slow us down. But now, government debt is exploding.

Carmen Reinhart: This is a truly global [crisis]. You have to go back to the 1930s to see [a crisis in which] no one is unscathed, whether you’re low income, middle income, high income, irrespective of region. The accumulation of debt is also at a global scale. It’s advanced, middle income, low income.

Covid-19 has been akin to a war. You first fight the war. You win the war. And then you worry, how are you going to pay for the war? Because nothing less than human lives have been at stake here. Do I take a benign view of the debt accumulation? Absolutely not. 

It’s important to recognize that even before Covid-19, almost half of low-income countries were facing debt difficulties, or were in an outright debt crisis. So, the time horizon and severity of the consequences are very uneven. 

We’re already seeing it unfold in low-income countries, in rapidly rising incidents of sovereign debt problems. We’ve had emerging market crises: Ecuador, Argentina, Lebanon.

The advanced economies with the greatest resources have the greatest ability to withstand the debt buildup. But debt problems that this crisis is creating go over and beyond the sovereign. 

They’re at the household level, at the business level. This crisis didn’t begin as a financial crisis, but is morphing into one.

Could we, perhaps, print our way to prosperity?

Central banks—the Fed, the European Central Bank—have all been incredibly supportive to avoid an even worse outcome than what we’ve seen during the pandemic. But there’s a difference between being illiquid and being insolvent. 

Printing and liquidity provision can’t really tackle a fundamental solvency issue, namely, you just have no resources to repay.

Certainly, the low-for-long interest-rate environment makes debt servicing—public and private—much more manageable, much more affordable. But for those who have lost their jobs, the firms that have had to shut down, or countries that are being hit by a tsunami of a collapse in revenues—you don’t deal with insolvency with the provision of liquidity. There are orders of magnitude here that are beyond the reach of what a central bank can do.

What kind of recovery do you expect?

How many countries have gotten back to their pre-crisis level of per capita income?

We’re not there yet. Let’s take a standard, well-known global forecast, like the World Economic Outlook from the International Monetary Fund, or the Global Economic Prospects from the World Bank. 

Both projections, even with a V-shape rebound, still don’t get you to your pre-crisis per capita income level. That takes longer. If you look at past serious crises, that full recovery, getting back to, at a minimum, where you were before the crisis hit, is a multiyear process.

Don’t confuse rebound with recovery. We’re going to see this snapback, because we had output and employment collapses the likes of which are four standard deviations and more away from any normal downturn. The temptation is to say, aha, we’ve recovered. 

Not the same thing. And once you get into other dimensions, into things like poverty levels, it’s a very, very unequal crisis, hitting the most vulnerable most. That takes time to overcome.

How long is multiyear?

In 2008-09, it took the U.S. about five years to get back to the pre-crisis level of per capita income. 

In Europe, it has taken longer: Italy and Greece are still waiting to recover the level of per capita income of 2007. 

In developing countries, whether you’re talking about Zambia, Angola, Ecuador, or Lebanon, these are very serious crises. 

Look back to the 1980s: It’s not called the Lost Decade for nothing. 

In 1990, about 60% of the emerging markets and developing countries had per capita income levels below what they were in 1980.

The percentage of emerging market nations whose per capita income levels in 1990 were below what they had been in 1980.

There’s a huge level of uncertainty about whether either monetary or fiscal policy can sustain even a fraction of the stimulus we saw earlier this year. In the U.S., some of the risks to recovery are declaring victory prematurely and withdrawing stimulus prematurely. 

To get recovery on a sustained footing, we still need to see more fiscal stimulus. Good news on the vaccine notwithstanding, we are still seeing record infection rates.

Let me highlight another headwind to growth. By almost any realistic assessment, the issue we are looking at is more nonperforming loans. 

You don’t get this kind of economic contraction and not affect household and business balance sheets. What do financial institutions do when they’re facing compromised balance sheets? 

They curtail lending. This was a classic case in Europe after the 2008-09 crisis. In varying degrees, you’re going to see tighter lending standards, less new lending in an environment with so much uncertainty.

At what point do current central-bank policies create serious consequences?

If, in the global financial centers, you have had either negative or zero rates, for the past 200 years, it only fostered the search for yield. 

It takes you to riskier investments. It takes you down the path of skewing toward riskier projects. 

One variant of increased risk taking is skewing activity away from better regulated institutions—the banks—to more maverick, less well-regulated shadow banking.

Do you foresee another global financial crisis?

In a classic financial crisis, you have a period of a boom, fueled by credit creation, leverage, the asset price bubble. 

The bubble bursts. And you still have the leverage. Boom, you have a balance sheet problem on your hands.

This time, we may have the bust without the boom. In lieu of a big dramatic Lehman moment, what you’re likely to get is a sustained deterioration in asset quality. 

How long can small and medium-size businesses that are still dealing with the closures, with a very uncertain environment, maintain debt servicing? 

There are financial fragilities. There are financial crises that come about with less drama, [because of] a significant cumulative deterioration in asset quality. 

We are not out of the woods. This really applies globally.

The World Bank is concerned about income inequality. Do loose policies make it worse?

They already have. This is a very unequal crisis, hitting lower-income, most-vulnerable groups of the population, and across countries, as well. 

The ability to do what we’re doing and work from home has not been evenly distributed across income groups. 

The poorest countries have the least capacity to do the kind of stimulus that ensures people have even the minimum minimorum of a safety net.

The recent World Bank report on poverty and shared prosperity for 2020 showed the first spike in global poverty rates in more than 20 years. 

The inequality dimension is already very significant. Prosperity takes a long time to build, but it takes a much shorter period to destroy.

How does the developing world emerge from this crisis?

Let’s talk about China: It’s very important to understand its recovery in the developing world. Coming out of the 2008-09 crisis, China was the engine of growth for developing and emerging economies. 

In the decade that ended in 2013, China’s growth rate averaged double digits, a little over 10% or so. That’s not where China is today.

The first thing that jumps out is how successfully China was able to contain the pandemic, because everything follows from that—comparatively strong performance relative to everyone else. 

Is China going to be the kind of growth engine for the developing and emerging world that it was at the end of the 2008-09 crisis? I don’t think so.

Over the past decade, Chinese corporates took on record levels of debt. The capacity to be a vibrant exporter is very much still there, but the rest of the world is in a different shape. 

Much of China’s spectacular growth after the global financial crisis was from infrastructure investment. The idea that you can go into another mega-fixed-investment-boom is not feasible. 

And the China commodity boom, which lasted longer than any commodity boom in the past 200 years—we’re not likely to get there. Another engine was that China became the largest lender to low-income countries and some middle-income ones. 

Many of the countries now facing serious debt-repayment difficulties have taken on quite a bit of debt from China. That source of new financing is not there now.

Which countries will be in the worst shape?

If you’re a commodity producer, your export revenues have been shot. Your government revenues have been shot. 

Economic activity is less capable of rebounding if the sovereign government is in the midst of a debt crisis. The most immediately, heavily impacted are many low-income countries, but there are a lot of middle-income countries, especially in Latin America, that are hit especially hard. 

When you look back over the past 20 years, one of the great achievements of globalization was the narrowing gap between rich and poor countries. That [gap] is widening markedly again.

Thank you, Carmen.

Kuwait’s Struggle to Create a Modern State

The country’s reputation as a liberal Middle Eastern state obscures the underlying social tensions.

By: Hilal Khashan

With a free press, active parliament and dynamic political system, Kuwait is the most liberal member of the Gulf Cooperation Council. 

But its reputation as an open society masks the country’s abysmal human rights record and underlying social tensions. 

It’s a small, oil-rich country with a relatively prosperous population whose economic wealth far exceeds its level of social and political development. 

Its deficiencies in this regard are best seen in the treatment of nonnationals – including both foreign laborers and those considered stateless people who have roots in the country extending centuries.


Kuwait’s modern history began in 1716 when three tribes from north-central Arabia – al-Sabah, al-Khalifa and al-Jalahima, which together formed the al-Utub confederation – immigrated to Kadima on the northwestern coast of the Persian Gulf. 

In 1775, the Persian Zand dynasty seized Basra in southern Iraq, turning Kuwait’s port into a vital lifeline in the Persian Gulf’s northwest. But as the turmoil in Persia and Iraq persisted, wariness of foreigners grew and helped shape government decisions. 

Adverse local and regional conditions helped further divide Kuwaiti society along tribal, religious and sectarian lines.

Thus, throughout Kuwait’s history, citizenship has had little meaning other than entitlement to government welfare provisions. 

The country’s tribal structure is reflected in its political system. 

The parliament is a modern version of the "diwaniyas," or tribal meeting places, where each tribe assembles in a separate diwaniya to discuss political issues and choose its parliamentary representatives.

The tribal confederation and the business class agreed on an unwritten social contract based on Islam’s consultative system. 

The al-Sabah royals, whose reign the tribes and merchants endorsed in 1752, dismissed the consultative council in 1896. Kuwait’s first legislative council was formed in 1938 but quickly collapsed because of disputes between Arabs, Persians and commercial families. 

That same year, Kuwait’s hydrocarbon era began, refocusing its economy from commerce, pearl harvesting and fishing to oil production. 

Society discovered modern modes of interpersonal interaction, which paved the way, a year after independence in 1961, for a new social contract and an ostensibly democratic political system in which sovereignty emanated from the people.

From the onset of independence, Kuwait’s royals opposed empowering civil society because of their vested interest in preserving the state’s tribal nature and preventing the rise of strong parliamentary blocs. 

The ruling al-Sabah family considers the business elite a historical adversary and competitor, and it is determined to prevent them from regaining their political influence. 

In 2012, Kuwait’s emir changed the four-votes-per-person voting system to a one-person-one-vote system, which dealt a blow to the forces of change and precluded the opposition’s ability to form weighty parliamentary blocs.

For years, the state manipulated the tribes to strengthen its grip on power and weaken the parliament. 

The political movements that sprang up in the 1950s and 1960s – Arab nationalists, the Baath Party and Islamist political groups – failed to include broader segments of society and thus did not forge an integrated political community. 

The royals, meanwhile, failed to establish a state ideology to translate the constitution’s national principles. 

Instead, they chose to co-opt the tribes as a countervailing force to the merchants and ideological political parties. 

Despite the tribes’ increasing education levels, they remained economically disadvantaged and, more recently, began to turn on the ruling elite.


Kuwaiti society has a long history of discrimination against marginalized groups. It surged following Iraq’s 1990 invasion of Kuwait, when the entire royal family fled to Saudi Arabia and left Kuwaitis to face the unknown. 

After liberation, demands surged for a population balance policy, primarily aimed at expelling the 450,000 Palestinian expatriates living in Kuwait due to the Palestine Liberation Organization’s public support for Iraq’s invasion. At that point, running a traffic light became a sufficient reason to deport a Palestinian. 

More than 360,000 Palestinians who played a crucial role in modernizing the country were deported to Jordan. 

In 2013, the Ministry of Health introduced a new checkup protocol at public hospitals that segregated Kuwaitis from expatriates and gave them preferential treatment, even though the vast majority of the medical staff is foreign.

Since the outbreak of the COVID-19 pandemic, racism has again seen a resurgence, this time targeting Asian laborers, many of whom lost their jobs because they were seen as linked to the virus. 

Some politicians have also accused expatriates of spreading COVID-19 and overburdening the health care system. 

Indeed, many Kuwaitis, irrespective of their social standing, have negative attitudes toward expatriates, most notably laborers from Southeast Asia and Egypt. Roughly 825,000 Indians, 518,000 Egyptians and 186,000 Filipinos live in Kuwait. 

Employee abuse has particularly been an issue for the Filipino community. In 2018, Philippine President Rodrigo Duterte condemned the ill-treatment of Filipino workers in Kuwait. 

He banned Filipinos from seeking employment in Kuwait amid confirmed reports of widespread human rights violations by employers, including murder, rape and subhuman working conditions. 

Between 2016 and 2018, more than 200 Filipino workers in Kuwait died on the job, 22 by suicide. A Kuwaiti lawmaker demanded halting all foreign aid to the Philippines in response to Duterte’s criticism. 

A few months later, the ban was lifted, likely a result of the fact that remittances from Filipino workers in Kuwait are a valuable source of income for the Philippines.

There are several other anecdotal examples of the prejudice toward foreign workers. A Kuwaiti actress who disparaged Arab communities living in the country called for Egyptians to be thrown in the desert. 

An Emirati poet attempted to defend her by saying she meant Bengalis, not fellow Arabs. In another incident, a Kuwaiti food handler beat a hungry Indian laborer queuing for food during Ramadan because he was Hindu. 

Kuwaitis have mostly ignored the criticism over foreign worker abuse. They often argue that they are entitled to do what they want in their own country. 

The official response is usually that these are isolated events that do not represent Kuwaiti values. (Ironically, Kuwaiti ruler Sheikh Sabah Al Ahmad Al Sabah, who passed away last September, was known as “the emir of humanity,” despite the country’s appalling human rights record.)

Undocumented Residents

The poor treatment of nonnationals extends not just to temporary foreign workers but also to those who have deep, ancestral links to the country. 

Less than 30 percent of Kuwait’s 4.5 million residents are citizens; the rest are either expatriates residing in the country or "bidoon," meaning stateless people. 

When Kuwait won its independence from Britain in 1961, the local population totaled 310,000 people. One-third of them received citizenship as descendants of the al-Utub confederation state founders, and another one-third was also granted citizenship. 

The rest were labeled bidoon, despite the fact that their ancestors had lived in the country for centuries. 

According to official statistics, the native population has grown sixfold since independence, but the number of bidoon has remained stable at roughly 110,000 people.

The bidoon are Bedouins who, for the most part, came from southern Iraq in the 18th and 19th centuries. Their Shiite background is the primary reason they have been denied Kuwaiti citizenship. 

For many of them, their naturalization applications were either discarded or rejected by the Interior Ministry when Kuwait gained independence. Until the Iran-Iraq War in the 1980s, they received generous state benefits, but since then, they have been treated as illegals and deprived of fundamental human rights such as public education and hospital access. 

Many live in abject poverty and are seen by the public as traitors, despite the fact that many bidoon fought and died for Kuwait when the Iraqi army occupied the country in 1990. The bidoon issue is essentially a human rights matter, but the government has treated it as a political matter, one that threatens to disrupt Kuwait’s fragile social balance.

With the population balancing policy, Kuwait missed an opportunity to learn the lessons of its past. Instead of building an indigenous labor force, Kuwait has replaced Palestinians mostly with Egyptians and contracted hundreds of thousands of Asian laborers. 

The country is facing severe challenges that require substantial reforms, both political and economic. Oil, Kuwait’s sole source of revenue, is losing its luster as prices fall. The Gulf region is as unstable as ever, and expatriates are leaving Kuwait in increasing numbers. 

The pressure will continue to mount on the royal family to transition to genuine constitutionalism and on Kuwaitis to become economically productive. 

Only these substantive changes will help Kuwait transform into a modern state. 

The Myth of American Innocence

The Capitol attack shows the danger of forgetting America’s history.

By Brent Staples

The mob assault on the Capitol was an outgrowth of what came before.Credit...Erin Schaff/The New York Times

The history of the United States is rife with episodes of political violence far bloodier and more destructive than the one President Trump incited at the Capitol on Wednesday. 

Nevertheless, ignorance of a grisly past well documented by historians like W.E.B. DuBois, John Hope Franklin and Richard Hofstadter was painfully evident in the aftermath of this week’s mob invasion of Congress. 

Talking heads queued up to tell the country again and again that the carnage was an aberration and “not who we are” as a people.

This willful act of forgetting — compounded by the myth of American innocence — has shown itself to be dangerous on a variety of counts. 

For starters, it allowed many Americans to view the president’s insistence that he had won an election in which he was actually trounced, and his simultaneous embrace of right-wing extremism, as political theater that will pass uneventfully from the stage when Joe Biden is inaugurated.

“What’s the harm in humoring him?” the argument went. “Mr. Trump will soon be gone.” 

As it turns out, Republicans in Congress who played along with the ruse encouraged a mob weaned on presidential lies to believe the fiction that Mr. Trump had been robbed of a victory. 

The resulting invasion of the government — which has thus far reportedly taken at least five lives — should make clear to everyone that the potential for political violence is a proverbial river of gasoline, waiting for a demagogue like Mr. Trump to drop the lighted match.

The circumstances that led up to the sacking of the Capitol are reminiscent of the 19th century, when Southerners rolled back the period of Black self-determination known as Reconstruction, unleashing a reign of racial tyranny. 

During the November election, Mr. Trump echoed Southern white supremacists of a bygone era when he falsely asserted that there had been widespread voting fraud in majority-Black cities.

The nation’s history of violence against Black citizens echoed in the rampage.Credit...Joseph Prezioso/Agence France-Presse — Getty Images

This month, a coalition of Republican senators led by Ted Cruz of Texas summoned up this blood-drenched history when they parroted the voting fraud lie and demanded that Congress appoint an electoral commission to sort out the 2020 election.

Mr. Cruz inappropriately cited as a precedent a commission created to adjudicate the election of 1876. At the time, it was unclear who had won the election; some states submitted multiple election returns, a set for the Republican, Rutherford B. Hayes, and a set for the Democrat, Samuel J. Tilden.

Mr. Cruz’s analogy was dishonest on its face, given that there is no valid dispute about electoral votes today. But by bringing up 1876, the senator unwittingly pointed to the ancestry of the voter suppression practices in which his party is heavily invested. The 1876 election, as the historians Rachel Shelden and Erik B. Alexander noted this week in The Washington Post, was riddled with bloodshed and intimidation. 

White terror organizations targeted African-Americans throughout the South in the run-up to Election Day. In the Black stronghold of Hamburg, S.C., the authors write, “hundreds of gun-toting whites from South Carolina and nearby Georgia descended on the town, executing members of the militia and ransacking Black homes and shops.”

The federal government eventually withdrew the troops that were protecting Black rights in the South. This set the stage for the system of slavery by another name that persisted until the passage of the Civil Rights Act of 1964 and the Voting Rights Act of 1965.

The days leading up to the mob invasion of the Capitol presented several echoes of the intricately planned coup d’état carried out against the city government of Wilmington, N.C., in 1898. White supremacists overthrew a government that had been elected through an alliance that included African-Americans and white progressives.

As Mr. Hofstadter and Michael Wallace report in “American Violence: A Documentary History,” military units poured into Wilmington from other places to assist the new regime: “African continued to cringe before Caucasian as the troops paraded the streets, as the guns barked and the bayonets flared, for a new municipal administration of the ‘White Supremacy’ persuasion.”

Untold numbers of Black citizens were killed, and well-known Wilmingtonians were banished from the city under pain of death. As was the case at the Capitol on Wednesday, the Wilmington mob was especially keen to silence journalists who had resisted the rising tide of racism. To that end, the marauders burned the Black-owned Daily Record, whose editor, Alexander Manly, fled the city.

White supremacists eventually took control of the state, bringing down the curtain on Black political participation. Given this history, it is in no way a coincidence that North Carolina remains a battleground where African-Americans continue to struggle against the effects of gerrymandering and other forms of suppression.

Large and small, these violent assaults on Black self-determination continued into the 20th century. While sometimes expressly intended to destroy Black electoral power, they were just as often deployed to crush Black economic independence by destroying homes and, particularly, businesses that competed with white-owned ones in the marketplace.

Perhaps the most pointed example of such an assault was the Tulsa Race Massacre of 1921 in Oklahoma. A white mob unleashed partly by the Tulsa police murdered at will while incinerating 35 square blocks of the Black enclave of Greenwood, reducing to ashes a muscular business strip known as the Negro Wall Street.

As the historian Jelani Cobb noted in The New Yorker two months before the election, America’s record of willfully ignoring the violent suppression of Black voting rights is much more extensive than its record of protecting Black voters. 

While the public tends to view instances of election violence “as a static record of the past,” he wrote, “historians tend to look at them the way that meteorologists look at hurricanes: as a predictable outcome when a number of recognizable variables align in familiar ways.” 

As Mr. Cobb said last fall — when political violence was clearly trending upward — the metaphorical hurricane was close at hand indeed.

The mob assault on the Capitol was an outgrowth of what came before. It followed a heavily racialized campaign by a president who falsely portrayed African-American cities as hot spots of voting fraud, while endearing himself to white supremacists. 

Republicans who subscribe to this toxic strategy deserve to be held responsible for the chaos it reaps. For shades of things to come, they need look no further than the damaged Capitol and the dead and injured who were hauled away on gurneys.

Mr. Staples is a member of the editorial board.