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Fredericksburg Sister-City group helping partners in COVID-devastated Nepal

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UMW students in Nepal in 2018

During a 2018 trip to Nepal, UMW students raise prayer flags in a sacred meditation cave outside Kathmandu Valley. 

As horrible as the images are of COVID-19 running rampant in India, members of the Fredericksburg–Nepal Exchange fear what’s happening in the country next to it is even more devastating.

“Their outbreak is even worse than India’s, if you can believe it, but it’s not getting as much attention,” said David Rettinger about Nepal, which is experiencing upwards of 8,600 new cases a day as almost half of all people tested for the virus have it. “The news is getting worse and worse with each passing day, and Nepal’s health care system is not prepared for this pandemic.”

Rettinger is a professor at the University of Mary Washington and the public relations chairman of the Sister-City Program that pairs Fredericksburg with partners in Kathmandu, the capital of Nepal. He’s spreading the word about the local effort to raise money, through an online fundraiser, to purchase vital medical supplies such as oxygen concentrators and nasal tubes that deliver the much-needed air supply to patients.

Because Nepal—the home of Mount Everest—is landlocked between India and China, shipping costs can climb as high as the equipment costs. That’s why the Sister-City partnership is working with established groups that have the necessary know-how and connections, Rettinger said.

Chief among them is Scott DeLisi, a Northern Virginia resident and former ambassador to Nepal and Uganda. He’s also executive director of Engage Nepal, a charitable group that, like the Fredericksburg partnership, formed after a 2015 earthquake in Nepal killed more than 8,500 people and destroyed or damaged almost a million homes, many in rural, hard-to-reach districts.

Calling COVID-19 “the invisible earthquake,” the Engage Nepal website says devastation from the virus will be every bit as serious as the gigantic tremor. The variant that emerged from the cases in India “is roaring through Nepal like a wildfire,” Rettinger said.

DeLisi agreed.

“Every day, I open my computer or start looking at my messages and I’m hearing from partners, from friends, from people I feel deeply about, and there’s not a family that hasn’t been touched,” DeLisi said. “I don’t think folks here understand the scope of the tragedy of what we’re seeing. We saw these heart-rending pictures from India, but the situation in Nepal is even worse.”

Part of the problem is the difficulty reaching remote areas. Even in the best of times, medical care is “dicey,” Rettinger said, as World Bank officials estimate the rural parts of the country have one doctor for every 1,400 people. As in India, hospitals in Nepal are running out of oxygen and not accepting any more patients because they simply don’t have the supplies to treat them, he said.

A college professor and director of Academic Integrity Programs, Rettinger has visited Nepal three times, once as a young adult and twice in recent years. In 2018, he and fellow professor Dan Hirshberg, an expert in Asian religions, led a study abroad trip for UMW students.

On the first day of a class about international perspectives, Hirshberg told the students they’ve never seen a part of the world like Nepal, according to a story in the UMW Voice.

“Everything’s different,” Hirshberg said. “I guarantee you: Your mind will be blown.”

Rettinger had such a reaction on his trips, when he imagined the landscape would be the biggest draw. “The mountains there are so beautiful as to be incomprehensible. I feel like I’m connected to something bigger than myself.”

But he also discovered the people were amazing as well. Careful not to make generalizations about a country where 30 million people speak more than 100 languages, Rettinger said on one trip he spent more time with friends he made than taking in the beautiful scenery.

“The people there are just incredibly welcoming, and it’s a really special place because of them,” he said.

That’s why the skyrocketing number of COVID cases in Nepal, with its limited infrastructure and shortages of equipment and manpower, hits close to home, said David Caprara, a member of the Fredericksburg–Nepal Exchange Board who coordinates efforts with counterparts in Nepal.

In the fall, UMW will welcome a new Nepali student, Anshu Adhikari, whose father died from COVID earlier this year, Caprara said. The student and the loss her family, like so many others in Nepal, have faced has given “added passion to this effort,” he said.

After almost 40 years in foreign service, DeLisi, the former ambassador, said he realized there’s only so much the United States government can do in such situations. The rest has to come from the private sector and individuals—and he’s been gratified by the response of the local Sister-City program.

“God bless all those folks in Fredericksburg who care, because it’s really quite an impressive effort,” he said. “It makes me proud. The money is great, but knowing there are others who care and are committed gives me heart to carry on as well. If we come together, we can make this difference, we can save lives and have an impact.”

Cathy Dyson: 540/374-5425

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