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27 March 2020

Bulgaria: Even in a state of emergency human rights must be respected!

(Doctors love their children too)

The prosecutor's office is investigating doctors from St. Mina Hospital in Plovdiv, a hospital designated by the Bulgarian Crisis Headquarters to receive patients with suspected COVID-19. In an open letter sent to the Minister of Health, the doctors at St. Mina stated that they have not been instructed to implement the protocol for the admission and treatment of patients with COVID-19, and that the hospital did not have the necessary personal protective equipment to work with such patients.

Human rights during a state of emergency

Bulgaria is in a state of emergency for the first time since World War II. There are almost no lawyers still alive from that time to share their experience of how the state of emergency affects our human rights. Moreover, there are almost no lawyers who can even imagine the extent to which a state of emergency affects those rights. At most, perhaps some of us remember the heated debate on the adoption of Article 57 (3) of the Bulgarian Constitution.

According to constitutional law experts, the state of emergency suspends all rights guaranteed by the Bulgarian Constitution except for the rights under Articles 28, 29, 31, 32 and 37. The rights that remain intact are the right to life, the right that no one can be subjected to torture, cruel or degrading treatment or clinical trials without their written consent, the right to a fair trial, the presumption of innocence in criminal proceedings, the right to privacy and protection against any harm of personal and family life, honour and dignity, as well as the right to freedom of thought, conscience and religion.

In short, even in a state of emergency, a citizen of Bulgaria may refuse to carry out certain activities if those activities endanger their life or the lives of their family. This applies not only to the doctors and the nurses at St. Mina Hospital, but also to police officers, to people working in public transport, pharmacists, couriers and all other professions that are now working on the front lines of the crisis. In addition, every citizen of Bulgaria has the right to express their thoughts in accordance with their own conscience, and this includes the right of everyone to express dissatisfaction and to protest.

Professional ethics

We all have heard about the Hippocratic Oath. However, how many non-doctors are aware that it does not preclude the use of common sense and personal judgement.

In addition, under the Code of Professional Ethics, a Bulgarian doctor may refuse treatment when there are no conditions for the fulfilment of their professional rights and obligations or when there is a direct threat to their health and life.

As to the (medical) staff engaged under an employment contract, in accordance with the Labour Code (Article 284), the Health and Safety at Work Act (Article 36) and Ordinance 3 on the minimum safety requirements, employers are obliged to ensure free personal protective equipment in all places where the work involves a risk to the health and safety of the employees. Moreover, the Labour Code prohibits the employer from "replacing" the personal protective equipment with cash equivalents and permits the employees to refuse to perform their work in the event of a serious and imminent danger to their life and health. The Labour Code also imposes on the employee an obligation to notify their employer when they quit their job because of a life and health threat. There is no explicit provision as to which methods of notification are legal and which are not. Hence, there is no prohibition on notifying the employer (even if it is the State or a municipality) in the form of an open letter.

In a situation where the courts are closed, exercising one's rights is very difficult. Let us not forget that the state of emergency does not forbid clear-headed assessment not only by doctors, but also by jurists in the prosecution and pre-trial offices. After all, as Sting puts it, "There is no monopoly of common sense."


This article is part of our coronavirus-focused legal updates – visit our coronavirus info corner to get more info!