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Rio de Janeiro Is in the Middle of a Major Public Health Crisis

The condition of the region’s hospitals stands in stark contrast to the the gleaming new Olympic arenas and doctors are warning those planning to attend the Games not to get sick.
Photo de Tiago Celestino/Flickr

Drastically reduced services, horrendous waits to see a doctor, not enough beds, and delays in relatives receiving the bodies of relatives who die — the public health system in the state of Rio de Janeiro is in the middle of a major crisis.

"We're experiencing a public calamity, where the system doesn't have the capacity to meet the needs of the population" Joarge Darze, President of the Rio de Janeiro Doctor's Union told VICE News. "The health centers can't provide the care required, and people are dying because of it."


The crisis has been brewing for months, some say for years, but its depth became apparent just before Christmas when the Hospital Estadual Getúlio Vargas, one of the biggest in the north of region, closed the doors of its emergency service to all but death-risk patients.

Many other hospitals have closed departments or are operating reduced services.

Brazilian media has described patients waiting more than nine hours, or more, to be seen. The regional medical council estimates that there is a daily shortfall of around 150 beds.

Earlier this month the sister of a patient at the Hospital Geral de Nova Iguaçu in the Baixada Fluminense region of Greater Rio de Janeiro complained to journalists that the hospital "smelt like a morgue." She said that her brother, who had been waiting in a corridor for two days without being seen by a doctor, "looked like he was on the Titanic."

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A lack of hospital doctors has also put the city's coroner's department under strain. There are reportedly long delays in bodies being released to relatives, and even of corpses piling up outside a broken refrigerator.

The condition of the region's hospitals stands in stark contrast to the the gleaming new Olympic arenas and revitalized Porto Maravilha district that already includes a $59 million dollar million Museum of Tomorrow, and will soon see construction of the Trump Towers Rio complex.


The crisis forced state governor Luiz Fernando Pezão to declare a state of emergency in the healthcare system in December that the authorities have blamed on the country's general economic difficulties.

"Factors such as the deceleration of the country's economic growth and the fall in the price of oil, among others, have had a major impact on the economic situation of Rio de Janeiro," a government spokesperson said in a statement.

Federal government figures released in November estimated that Brazil's economy would shrink by 3.1 percent in 2015, with inflation and unemployment rising fast. The state-run oil company Petrobras, which bases many of its activities in Rio, is currently grappling with falling oil prices and gripped by a vast corruption scandal.

Rio de Janeiro's Olympic commitments have not helped. The state government is responsible for a number of infrastructure works, such as the metro extension from the tourist districts of Copacabana, Leblon and Ipanema to the Parque Olimpico complex. Rio transport secretary Carlos Roberto Osório admitted in December that a further injection of federal funds would be required to complete the project.

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The government's economic woes have also affected the state's education department, and led to delays in wage and pension payments to public workers.


"The government isn't meeting its commitments," a policeman from Piraí, in the south of the state, told Brazilian media, upon discovering he had not been paid his December wages on time. "It's the first time I've had to put up with this in 16 years in the job."

Jorge Darze, however, rejects the official argument that the financial situation is solely the result of external factors.

"[Governor Pezão] has access to privileged information about cash flow, and a finance secretary, and a development secretary, to keep him informed about income and expenditure. It's impossible that they wouldn't know about the financial situation," Darze said. "And if he really didn't know, then he is guilty of negligence. He should have been prepared, to stop things reaching this point."

Cesar Augusto Paro, a professor at Rio's Institute of Studies in Collective Health (IESC), also believes the reasons for the crisis go beyond the financial troubles of the state.

"The reason why the crisis is more serious in health than in other areas is because our health system has always been underfinanced. It has never had the investment necessary envisaged by the constitution either at a state and federal level," he said. "What's really needed is radical change and more popular participation. The people haven't been respected when it comes to deciding on health policies."

The situation was alleviated a little after Christmas, with the government obtaining emergency funding from the city council and the federal government, allowing a number of hospitals to return to normal service.


Two hospitals have also been transferred from state to city control with the government arguing that the move will save the state economy $125 million dollars a year. The decision was greeted by protests from workers worried about job security.

The doctor's union said this month that the emergency measures are insufficient and announced it was intending to take legal action against Governor Pezão for breach of fiscal responsibility laws.

"We need an emergency response from the justice system. That's why we're taking the government to court," union leader Darze said. "I would say it's a criminal situation, one that breaches basic human rights."

He also warned those planning to visit Rio for the Olympic Games in the summer.

"If the city can't provide for its own residents, how can it deal with millions of foreign visitors?" he said. "We're not running a campaign telling people not to come to the Olympics. But we want to tell people not to get sick, because if you do, you'll have tremendous difficulty getting treated by the health system."

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Follow James Armour Young on Twitter: @seeadarkness