Virus exposes cracks in Brazil’s public health system

by Louis Genot

Brazil’s public health care system, considered among the world’s most advanced when it was launched, is being pushed to the brink by the coronavirus pandemic, which has exposed the impact of years of under-funding and mismanagement.

As Brazil closes in on 100,000 deaths from COVID-19 — the second country in the world to reach that bleak milestone, after the United States — the public health care system is struggling to care for those who depend on it.

Launched in 1988, the so-called SUS — for Sistema Unico de Saude, or Single Health System — was modeled on Britain’s National Health Service (NHS).

It was created when Brazil adopted a new constitution to steer it out of its 1964-1985 military dictatorship.

The constitution states that “health is a universal right and a duty of the state.”

The SUS is one of the only systems in Latin America to offer universal coverage, meaning free access to health care for the entire population — in theory, at least.

“On paper, the SUS is a perfect system. But in reality, we have a lot of problems,” said Fred Nicacio, an emergency room physician in the southeastern city of Bauro.

“We need more hospital beds, staff and a wider range of medicines,” he told AFP.

Several of his colleagues have been infected with the virus, taking them out of commission for two weeks — sometimes without being replaced.

“The health care professionals on the front line are demotivated, underpaid and feel undervalued,” he said.

He also noted that systemic corruption is another major problem.

“It stretches all the way from political leaders embezzling funds for supplies to patients pretending to be sick so they can get a doctor’s note for work,” he said.

Brazil has been rocked by numerous scandals related to the pandemic, including over-billing for emergency ventilator purchases and field hospitals that were budgeted for but never built. (AFP)

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