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The Bellagio Center: Part of Italy’s COVID-19 Epicenter

In a normal spring, the sounds of ferry horns and motorboat engines would be rising up from Lake Como by now. Tourists strolling in groups by the water would be part of our view. Bellagio Center would be alive with scholars, policymakers and artists huddled in meetings, wandering through our gardens, or sharing dining room tables.

Instead, the lakeside is empty, the Center is closed and, except for the occasional sound of sirens, the air is silent. Our Lombardy region has become the epicenter of Italy’s COVID-19 infection. And we don’t know how long it is going to last. We see with frustration that the numbers of those ill and dying are not declining. There is not yet light at the end of the tunnel.

Since 1959, The Rockefeller Foundation Bellagio Center has hosted thousands of distinguished guests from all over the world, enabling them time and space to work, learn from each other, and turn ideas into actions that change the world. The Center has been the site of meetings that led to the Green Revolution and the Global AIDS Vaccine Initiative and to residencies that have furthered the work of some of the world’s leading thinkers and creators.

The first conference I had to cancel was slated to begin February 24th, just a few days after the initial confirmed COVID-19 case in our region. Some participants we notified were already on their way. Disinfecting everything, we kept working as the month drew to an end.

Solidarity can make a huge difference. That has happened here.

On Monday, March 9, a new government decree asked us to not leave our homes unless absolutely necessary, and so I sent everyone home except for those needed for security purposes. On March 11, all bars and restaurants were closed. On the 22nd, another decree was issued closing more businesses and making the quarantine more severe, so now I am the only one at the center, except for the random visit from a member of the maintenance staff.

We are permitted to go to the grocery store and the pharmacy and make appointments to go to the bank. We must carry with us a note showing where we are coming from and where we are headed. Police randomly stop us asking to see the documentation.

Fewer than 4,000 people live in the village of Bellagio. With hundreds dying daily in our Lombardy region, inevitably COVID-19 has touched our community personally. I will not share the details to protect the privacy of those involved, but it has increased the sense of fear. I became aware that staff were beginning to think: “What if I or someone I love is next?”

The nearest hospital is about 15 miles away in Lecco, but we do have two local doctors and a very important team of paramedics. The Foundation has fostered a close relationship with those paramedics for many years; we have purchased ambulances four times for them.

As the crisis worsened, the Foundation offered $500,000 to help the region, with assistance concentrated on the Lecco hospital and the local paramedics. It was good news but ironically led to the hardest time of all. The hospital told us how desperate they were, and we tried every single supplier. We couldn’t spend a single dollar—nothing could be located.

And then suddenly respirators were found, and then ventilators, and we started purchasing. New York sent 80 facemasks to donate to the paramedics, and six staff members marking milestone anniversaries who received a total of $14,000 toward a cause of their choice all decided to donate to the paramedics. That feels like at least we are doing something.

I still come to the office on the Center’s compound where I live. I work, read, attend online conferences and walk. I know this too shall pass, but it’s taking longer than we expected.

If I were going to say something to countries just beginning to face this virus, I would say do not think this is the worst moment. Unfortunately, it is not. I would also say that solidarity can make a huge difference. That has happened here.

I would like to think that people will change after this. I’m not so sure—people tend to forget. But I’d like to think people will realize we don’t need so many things. Maybe we concentrate more on being, on sharing. Not on having.

—Pilar Palaciá joined the Foundation in 1991. As Managing Director of The Rockefeller Foundation Bellagio Center facilities, Ms. Palaciá is in charge of all logistics and operations at the Bellagio Center, including managing all staff and outsourced services. She also serves as the Foundation’s representative to guests of the Bellagio Center’s residency programs and conferences. Prior to her Bellagio appointment, Ms. Palaciá managed operations for the Foundation’s then office in San Francisco and earlier, the Foundation’s Latin America Office in Mexico City.