The Protector of Citizens dismissed BCHR’s initiative to perform an ex officio review and establish any errors or omissions on the part of the relevant medical institutions that may have led to a higher number of COVID-19 deaths and infections amongst health professionals in Serbia.
In his letter to BCHR of 20 January 2021, the Protector of Citizens said that the requirements for initiating a review of the operations of administrative authorities had not been fulfilled because the BCHR should have first sent requests for free access to information of public importance to the Ministry of Health and the Public Health Institute Dr Milan Jovanović Batut, asking them about the higher number of COVID-19 deaths and infections among health professionals.
The media have over the past few weeks been publishing alarming information and statements by doctors, representatives of the Serbian Trade Union of Doctors and Pharmacists and other medical workers, who said that around 70 doctors succumbed to COVID-19 in 2020. They drew attention to the major discrepancies between the mortality rates among health professionals, especially doctors, in Serbia and the other countries in the region (e.g. Croatia and Slovenia). In their opinion, the main reasons for the higher rates in Serbia included, among others, staff shortages, lack of quality protection equipment, inadequate testing protocols in COVID-19 zones, et al.
Neither the Ministry of Health nor the Batut Institute have reacted to such information to date or to public appeals and requests by health professionals to release the official data on the number of medical workers who succumbed to COVID-19.
To recall, under Articles 24 and 32 of the Protector of Citizens Act, the Protector of Citizens is entitled to himself initiate a review of the operations of administrative authorities based on information he learns in any manner, in order to ascertain whether any systemic shortcomings resulted in violations of human rights, in this case of health professionals during the COVID-19 epidemic. BCHR notes with regret that the Protector of Citizens – who referred to the wrong provisions of the Protector of Citizens Act, specifically the ones governing the review of complaints filed by individuals who believe their human rights have been violated – let the BCHR and the public know that he has no intention of addressing this concerning issue.
This was the second time BCHR asked the Protector of Citizens to review the efficiency of the Health Ministry’s management of the COVID-19 epidemic. In June 2020, it requested of the Ombudsman to review the work of the Health Ministry after BIRN said that Serbia underreported the number of COVID-19 deaths and infections in the March-May 2020 period. Several months later, the Protector of Citizens notified the BCHR that he would not initiate such a review “in view of the fact that the Ministry of Health said it would re-examine the entire procedure of entering and processing data in the COVID-19 Information System”. After pressures from reporters to address the issue, the Ombudsman in mid-October 2020 “asked” the Health Minister to notify him of the Ministry’s findings of the re-examination at an unspecified time in the future. To recall, the Health Minister said that the re-examination of the number of COVID-19 deaths and infections would be undertaken once the pandemic was over.