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A wise man knows that he must put things into perspective, but a still wiser man knows what perspective to put them into. A doctor who tells the widow of a patient who has just died that, after all, her husband’s was only one of 2,800,000 deaths a year in the United States alone (56,000,000 worldwide) is a monster of insensitivity. But an epidemiologist who tries to express his compassion for every death that he enumerates will never progress beyond his first statistical table. The proper perspective ­changes with context.

What is the correct perspective into which the average citizen should put the current pandemic of the coronavirus, assuming that there is a single correct perspective for him to put it into? Most people, I surmise, veer between complacency and panic. They are like home investors who follow the fluct­uations of the stock market with febrile attention. A graph showing exponential growth in the number of cases induces a state of anxiety; a histogram showing a decline in the number of deaths the day before causes a burst of relief that the worst is over.

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