Arati Maleku with students in Nuwakot, Nepal, one of the districts most affected by the earthquake. Credit: Courtesy of Arati Maleku

When a 2015 earthquake in Nepal killed and injured thousands and devastated the nation’s economy, a current Ohio State professor found a way to send support; now, she’s helping tackle an “invisible” earthquake: COVID-19.

Arati Maleku, an assistant professor in the College of Social Work at Ohio State, founded Nepal Rising while a postgraduate at the University of Texas at Arlington. She said she wanted to provide support for communities, particularly through education, after the earthquake — which killed at least 8,891 people, according to the U.S. Agency for International Development — left the public spotlight and other support streams trickled dry.

“We knew that we needed to do something long term, so that’s how it started,” Maleku said. “We focused on really building community resilience.”

Since Nepal Rising was founded, the organization has disbursed more than $350,000 to more than 50 projects throughout the country, according to the organization’s website.

Maleku said the COVID-19 pandemic has the potential to impact Nepal’s health and economy similar to the earthquake five years ago. According to Johns Hopkins University, at the time of publication, there were 6,591 confirmed cases of COVID-19 and 19 deaths in Nepal. But Maleku said this number should not be taken at face value.

“Many people in Nepal don’t think it’s like the earthquake. It’s still not an obvious destruction that’s created, but there’s this looming disaster that’s happening,” Maleku said. “Because of the poor infrastructure, we just do not know the extent of this.”

In addition to a lack of expansive roads and infrastructure, Maleku said Nepal’s health care system — which was overtaxed after the earthquake — was not stable enough to handle a pandemic. She said in the beginning, not only were there no tests or adequate supplies of personal protective equipment available, there also was not widespread training in how to use these supplies.

In response to the pandemic, Maleku said the organization has shifted the focus of its pillars of relief, rebuilding and resilience to address the impact of COVID-19 on health care and infrastructure. Through a network of volunteers, Maleku said Nepal Rising is providing physical supply kits and personal protective equipment training to medical professionals, as well as ensuring there is an adequate number of intensive care unit beds in hospitals.

“We are now able to create a model in a municipality, and are now working with local governments to replicate that in three other municipalities in Nepal,” said Maleku. “It’s really required us to work with organizations that could really set up a system to build health care capacity.”

Maleku said one of Nepal Rising’s major collaborators in the fight against COVID-19 has been Engage Nepal. Former U.S. Ambassador to Nepal Scott DeLisi started the organization to promote social inclusion and well-being in the country. Together, Engage Nepal and Nepal Rising have worked to provide aid.

“They shared our vision about transparency and accountability, giving in support of the most vulnerable, the most in need and the most at risk in Nepal,” DeLisi said in a statement.

One of the main differences between this pandemic and the 2015 earthquake for Maleku is its scale. Whereas the earthquake was confined mostly to Nepal, this pandemic is worldwide, and poorer countries like Nepal are being forgotten.

“Things get lost because it’s a global pandemic and everyone is hurting,” said Maleku. “It’s even more inequitable and even more grim for these situations in these countries.”

Despite contributing substantial time and energy into helping Nepal, Maleku said she hasn’t calculated the hours she’s worked — for her own sanity. 

“I cannot just say, ‘I don’t have time for this,’” she said. “I don’t know how much difference it’s going to make, but at least I kind of feel engaged, and feel like at least I’m contributing to something.”

Correction: A previous version of this story stated Arati Maleku’s work in Nepal was primarily on infrastructure instead of education. The story has been corrected to reflect that Maleku focused on education.