Witnessing widespread suffering and death from the COVID-19 pandemic, it is hard to discern a positive.

Yet, alongside the dire statistics, the reports of anguish and torment, and the disruption, unusually positive lessons are being learned.

And not a moment too soon. AIR Worldwide, which models catastrophe risks for the insurance industry, projected up to two million symptomatic cases of COVID-19 worldwide and deaths between 10,000 and 30,500 from March 18 to April 1.

Despite these daunting numbers, there are some wonderful happenings.

Here be miracles

Combative Ontario Premier Doug Ford has astonished everyone by abandoning partisan politics in favour of a clear, progressive and compassionate response to the COVID-19 crisis. He says this experience has changed him, and that these changes will be sustained.

Consider the Italian community of Vo, site of the first death in that country from COVID-19. Guided by health experts, all 3,300 residents were tested, three per cent were infected – 40 per cent of them asymptomatic – and everyone was quarantined. A repeat test found another 0.3 -per cent, all asymptomatic, and they too were quarantined.

There have been zero further cases.

Singapore and Taiwan, though close to China, have achieved amazingly low case counts and deaths without shuttering most business and social activities. Political leaders around the world grasp that they achieved success through rapid, robust, comprehensive and community-centred actions, overwhelmingly embraced by their citizens.

Alongside dire #COVID19 statistics, the reports of anguish and torment, and the disruption, unusually positive lessons are being learned.

Change is in the air

But there are important lessons embedded in our response to COVID-19. These lessons can help humanity address other, so far intractable threats to our survival: the climate crisis, poverty and growing inequity between rich and poor, rampant overconsumption of the planet’s resources, and mounting and all-pervasive pollution.

The transformative impulse sparked by confronting COVID-19 can be brought to bear on these more deeply existential problems. The French publication Lundi Matin published a piece in which the coronavirus furiously chastises us: “Either you use the time I’m giving you to envision the world of the aftermath in light of what you’ve learned from the collapse that’s underway, or the latter will go extreme.”

Who’s saying what

Thoughtful commentators now abound.

Environmentalist Bill McKibben exhorts banks and large corporations to join in the fight against climate change.

Renowned British epidemiologist Michael Marmot sees a new path to simultaneously addressing poverty and the climate crisis: ”Coronavirus exposes that we can do things differently … we must not go back to the status quo ante.”

Well-known journalist George Monbiot calls COVID-19 “nature’s wake-up call to complacent civilization … This coronavirus reminds us that we belong to the material world.”

Closer to home, respected Victoria-based public health physician Trevor Hancock, one of the co-founders of the Canadian Association of Physicians for the Environment, believes that we can springboard from our response to COVID-19 to change how our economic system is damaging the ecosystem, pointing out in his weekly Times-Colonist column that the harsh economic impact of this pandemic is actually likely to improve overall population health.

Economist Marshall Burke has shown that sharply reduced air pollution in China’s Hubei province, where COVID-19 began, may well have saved more lives than have been lost to the virus.

COVID-19 offers humanity a golden opportunity to restructure our relationship with our planet. We have seen global collaboration and rapid, decisive and altruistic action by governments around the world.

Will we seize this opportunity?

I spoke with my GP yesterday. My municipality is, demographically, the oldest in Canada. The elderly are the most vulnerable to Covid-19. Yet we've been spared. My doctor puts it down to a population that accepted quarantine, gloves and masks, social distancing but, above all, diligent hand washing. He said it's had amazing results. There has been a sharp drop off in cases of severe colds, strep throat and similar contagions. People have the habit of regularly washing their hands and not touching their faces.