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.