We May Be Isolated, But We’re in This Together

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It feels like we’ve lived a year in the last three weeks.

From one person in isolation to another, I hope you and your loved ones are getting through this crisis as well as can be.

It all happened so fast: One day, we were going to our jobs, hanging out with friends and going to restaurants. The NBA playoffs were a month away. I was busy rehabbing an injury that has kept me out of competitive basketball for a little over a year. The Tokyo Olympics were on the horizon and I was looking forward to being ready by the summer to join Spain’s national team, in what would’ve been my fifth Olympic Games.

Then suddenly, we were in self-confinement. State of emergency. Travel restrictions. The world came to a halt.

I’ve been reflecting for the last few weeks on what isolation means. For the severely ill, it’s a deadly emergency — they’re isolated in hospitals. They’re fighting the virus alone, with only medical staff to keep them company. Others are sick at home, self-quarantined within their residences from people in their own families. And then there are the health-care workers: the doctors, nurses, technicians and first responders. We rightly celebrate them as heroes — but they’re often isolated from their loved ones, too, as they expose themselves to infection to treat their patients.

The rest of us are isolated in a different way.

We’re confined to our homes — millions of people around the globe. In an instant, our worlds have shrunk to the size of a living room. We’re walled off from our friends, family, neighbors, and co-workers, and our only available connection is through our phones, TVs and computers. We’ve become inhabitants of our own separate islands.

The hope, and my belief, is that our isolation will slow the spread of the virus. And in this strange new reality, those of us in this last group are the relatively fortunate ones. If we’re lucky, we’re spending this time with family. But for so many people, it doesn’t feel like a lucky time. Jobs have been lost. Businesses have been closed. Schools have been shut down. Hospitals are being overwhelmed and medical equipment is in short supply. Uncertainty is hanging over everything. Will my loved ones be infected? When will there be a vaccine? When will life go back to “normal” — and what will “normal” even look like? The toll on our mental and physical health may grow bigger than we can imagine.

In an instant, our worlds have shrunk to the size of a living room.

And yet, for many of us, being isolated makes it harder to understand what’s really happening in places hard-hit by the virus.

You may follow the news, but depending on where you live, what you see outside your window might not match what you see on TV. We know there’s a raging fire — but on our street, or in our community, there might not be any smoke. The outbreak can feel like it’s happening somewhere else.

But for millions of people around the world, the coronavirus pandemic isn’t just a news story. It’s frighteningly close and deadly serious.

Spain, my home country, is one of the most-affected places in the world right now. I’ve heard the situation described as “apocalyptic.” The death toll in Spain is now second in the world only to Italy. The entire population is under strict order to stay indoors. Medical professionals are working around the clock — giving their expertise to save lives, and in some cases giving their lives, too. At least 14% of health-care workers in Spain have been infected with the virus.

We can hope the pandemic doesn’t reach our own community, but the odds are, it already has. The U.S. now has more reported cases of COVID-19 than anywhere else in the world. Unless we all take social distancing extremely seriously right now, the infection rate will overwhelm our medical systems. According to a recent Harvard study, if Americans don’t “flatten the curve” rapidly, as many as 20 million people could need hospitalization in the coming months, and more than four million could require ICU care. The resulting overflow will force hospitals to delay life-saving surgeries and other procedures, putting many more lives at risk. Doctors in the U.S. are preparing for a frightening prospect: the rationing of health care. If the demand of ventilators and ICU beds exceeds capacity, as this Wall Street Journal article forecasts, hospitals would be forced to effectively decide who lives and who dies. It’s a terrifying thought, but it’s already happening in places like Italy and Spain. We can’t pretend that it can’t happen here.

A recent story from Spain really shook me. In one of the busiest parts of Madrid, there’s a shopping center called Palacio de Hielo (Ice Palace). It’s a big mall with shops and restaurants, and the main attraction is an Olympic-sized ice skating rink. Today, though, the mall is empty, as Spaniards are under a country-wide order to remain in their homes. The skating rink, meanwhile, has been converted into a makeshift morgue. Think about that: An ice-skating rink….. is now a morgue. In the last few days, Madrid announced it was converting a second building into a makeshift morgue. That’s how much life has changed in Spain in such a short time.

Imagine, for a moment, an NBA arena in your city being converted into a morgue or an overflow hospital. Imagine not just a social-distancing advisory, but a law requiring people to remain indoors. In Spain, like in Italy, family members aren’t allowed to visit their dying relatives — to say a last goodbye — for fear of spreading the virus. Women giving birth can’t have loved ones at their bedside in the hospital. Weddings are being canceled. Burials are happening without attendees. This is a different kind of isolation.

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It’s hard not to feel helpless. I’m relieved that my parents, my two brothers and the rest of our families are doing O.K….. for now. But I know a lot of people in Spain who are ill, including two employees of mine who have come down with symptoms, and yet remain home because coronavirus testing is only available for those in the most dire conditions. Athletes, of course, aren’t immune. A former teammate of mine on the Spanish national team is at home this week recovering from the virus after being hospitalized.

With sports suspended, I think that athletes are feeling more connected than ever to our communities, our fans and the world around us. I loved seeing this recent conversation between Steph Curry and Dr. Anthony Fauci, and seeing Drew Brees’ commitment to the people affected in New Orleans. Last week, Rafael Nadal and I teamed up with the Red Cross to launch a campaign we’re calling #NuestraMejorVictoria (“Our Best Victory”) — to encourage athletes to support the fight against COVID-19. I hope this is just the beginning. We need athletes around the world to unite efforts, to continue to use their platforms to share critical information about the pandemic and bring people together across cultures and borders. Let’s do it!

And yet my mind keeps going back to that mall. For me it’s become a terrifying symbol for this crisis: The places we used to go to have fun and to be together — like an ice skating rink — have been transformed into grim reminders of the severity of this crisis. And it’s a reminder of the things we took for granted back when things were “normal” — the concerts, sporting events, birthday parties, meetings, restaurants, trips. These are some of the things that give our lives a lot of their meaning.

But I find myself looking for hope, even in isolation.

Every night, across Spain, something amazing happens: At 8 p.m. for the past few weeks, quiet cities have been erupting in cheers. People go to their windows to recognize, and cheer on, the country’s health-care workers. The gatherings last for 15 minutes or so, and then everyone returns to their self-confinement until the next evening. Similar tributes have started to pop up around the world.

This, too, is a powerful symbol. Human beings desire connection and community. The people at their windows are a daily reminder of the human spirit’s hunger for solidarity and love, even in the most challenging times. As humans, we all fundamentally want the same things: safety, affection, health, freedom and a good life for our loved ones and future generations.

The people at their windows are a daily reminder of the human spirit’s hunger for solidarity and love.

I’m also trying to find some solutions within this crisis. Maybe it’s because of my competitive nature as an athlete, or maybe I have cabin fever — but I’m trying. I’ve been asking myself, What can we learn from this moment? Of course, our first priority right now must be to beat this pandemic. To do that, we’ll have to support our health-care workers and scientists. We’ll have to follow their advice to avoid spreading this virus. That’s job No. 1.

But as much of the world remains isolated, we can’t forget our shared values. This is a rare chance to reexamine what we mean by We’re in this together.

Take health care, for example. It shouldn’t take a highly contagious outbreak to show us how interconnected we are. But it’s so obvious now: When it comes to health care, we’re in this together in the most literal sense. Your health affects my health, and my health affects yours. We need stronger health care systems, and we need to be more coordinated and transparent in our collaborative efforts. This crisis shows us how important it is for countries to share vital medical information and research. It won’t just save lives during this crisis; it will dramatically increase our chances of preventing the next one.

Truths are being uncovered and myths are being challenged. No one saw a global shutdown of this magnitude coming. But when it did come, it exposed how much we rely on people whose jobs are often treated as invisible in our everyday lives. The NBA community — my place of work for almost two decades — feels like a microcosm of a larger community. We often talk about the “NBA family”; and now, in this crisis, we’re faced with the opportunity to recommit to the values of that family. We’ve already seen an uplifting response, as teams and players have stepped up to take care of arena staff who lost their jobs. It was a powerful appreciation — and expression — of the community we live in, and it’s a much needed start. Let’s figure out how to keep it going.

Similar truths are coming to light everywhere. Much of our workforce is facing a financial nightmare. Entire economies are suffering as a result. It should make us uncomfortable, for example, to recognize that in America, more than three in ten adults have no savings at all. Many of those people — right now — are delivering our food, taking care of our sick, shipping our supplies, picking our crops. Over the last few days, some workers have begun to strike in an effort to bring attention to the hazardous conditions many jobs suddenly entail. And here’s the thing: Your neighbor’s job directly affects your job. Their quality of life affects yours, and vice versa. A contagious disease doesn’t judge the value of a victim by social status, income, race, religion or sexual orientation. Our response to it shouldn’t either.

Now is our chance to recommit to those ideals.

Jorge Sanz/SOPA Images/Sipa USA via AP

Because someday, this crisis will pass. As we do everything we can now to flatten the curve, we must start to think about what comes after, too. One of my big worries is that, as we fight this invisible enemy, another one is coming. This week the United Nations warned that the battle against the coronavirus would lead to “enhanced instability, enhanced unrest, and enhanced conflict.” In the coming months, life may return to normal in some ways, but in other ways it will have changed. People will be feeling hurt, vulnerable and angry. Lives and livelihoods will have been lost. As we battle the virus now, we need to prepare for that reality on the horizon. And when that time comes, it would be a massive disservice to everyone who fought against the outbreak, and everyone who died from it, to have learned nothing from this.

It makes me think about something I learned from a former teammate. The way he responded to setbacks was one of the most remarkable things I’ve seen in my life. He viewed adversity as a great teacher and an opportunity to grow.

That teammate was Kobe Bryant. I’m really missing Kobe these days, and the things he taught me are louder than ever in my mind, and in my heart.

We need this mentality right now. We may not be in control of very much, but we still have choices. The way we respond to the pandemic, and its aftermath, will define this moment in our history. Will we come out of this grateful and united — or resentful and divided?

It’s up to us.