Passionate Mayor In Brazil Is On A Mission To Save Lives From COVID-19

May 8, 2020
Originally published on May 8, 2020 10:54 am
Copyright 2020 NPR. To see more, visit https://www.npr.org.

NOEL KING, HOST:

Around the world, a massive army of people is fighting the coronavirus. Whether we succeed or fail will depend on us. NPR's Philip Reeves talked to a man who vividly understands that, a Brazilian mayor on a mission to save lives in his hometown. Here's Phil.

PHILIP REEVES, BYLINE: It's not easy right now to get the world's attention when you're just a city mayor, it's harder still when your city is in the middle of the Amazon rainforest. Yet Arthur Virgilio is determined to be heard.

ARTHUR VIRGILIO: I don't want to disappoint my people. It will not happen. I will not disappoint my people.

REEVES: Virgilio was born and bred in Manaus in northern Brazil. He's 74 and still passionate about the place.

VIRGILIO: I love my city. I love my state. And I love my country. But I love Manaus first of all, first of all.

REEVES: Manaus is a port in the Amazon River basin. More than 2 million people live there. It's normally full of life. That's the fish market the last time NPR was there. Tourists fly in to explore the surrounding jungle. Manaus is now in trouble. Its average daily death rate has more than tripled in the last few weeks. Hospitals are overwhelmed. COVID-19 victims are being buried in mass graves. Mayor Virgilio finds this hard to talk about without tears.

VIRGILIO: It's just emotional because it's impossible. It seems that you are swimming against the stream the whole time, the whole time, the whole time.

REEVES: Virgilio is desperately trying to persuade people to stay home.

VIRGILIO: Most of our people is in the streets doing I don't know exactly what.

REEVES: His task is not easy when Brazil's president, Jair Bolsonaro, repeatedly goes onto the streets in defiance of isolation guidelines.

(SOUNDBITE OF ARCHIVED RECORDING)

VIRGILIO: (Speaking Portuguese).

REEVES: Virgilio spent a lot of time on Brazil's airwaves urging Bolsonaro to stay home. Yet the mayor is also reaching out beyond Brazil.

(SOUNDBITE OF ARCHIVED RECORDING)

VIRGILIO: My dear Mr. Boris Johnson, prime minister of the United Kingdom, as mayor of the largest city in Amazonia, I have adopted every possible measure to maintain social distance...

REEVES: That's a video he sent to a handful of world leaders appealing for medical support.

(SOUNDBITE OF ARCHIVED RECORDING)

VIRGILIO: We cannot be silent. We need all possible help. Through the decades, we have fulfilled an important role to the health of the planet, keeping 96% of our nation's forests and conserving our rivers.

REEVES: Virgilio hopes his video will make a difference.

VIRGILIO: So I'd like to say that I would be very pleased if I received an answer and some help from Mr. Donald Trump.

REEVES: Virgilio says he's had no reply so far. Yet he'll keep fighting for his hometown and raising his voice in the heart of the rainforest.

VIRGILIO: I will not give up. I never give up. I am a fighter.

REEVES: Philip Reeves, NPR News, Rio de Janeiro. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.