"At this crucial time, both for global public health reasons, and to support the rights and lives of millions of people in these countries, sectoral sanctions should be eased or suspended," Michelle Bachelet said in a statement.
"In a context of global pandemic, impeding medical efforts in one country heightens the risk for all of us," she said.
Bachelet insisted "humanitarian exemptions to sanctions measures should be given broad and practical effect, with prompt, flexible authorization for essential medical equipment and supplies."
Her comments came as the number of cases of COVID-19 approached 400,000 worldwide, including nearly 17,000 deaths, according to an Agence France-Presse tally using official sources.
Bachelet pointed in particular to the case of Iran – one of the hardest-hit countries in the pandemic with nearly 2,000 deaths.
Even before the pandemic, she pointed out that human rights reports had repeatedly emphasized the impact of sectorial sanctions on access to essential medicines and medical equipment in the country, including respirators and protective gear for health care workers.
Bachelet's office stressed that more than 50 Iranian medics had died since the first COVID-19 case was detected in the country 5 weeks ago.
She warned that Iran's epidemic was also spreading to neighboring Afghanistan and Pakistan, putting a strain on their fragile health systems as well.
The statement also cautioned that sanctions could impede medical efforts in Cuba, North Korea, Venezuela and Zimbabwe during the pandemic.
"The majority of these states have frail or weak health systems," Bachelet warned.
"Progress in upholding human rights is essential to improve those systems – but obstacles to the import of vital medical supplies, including over-compliance with sanctions by banks, will create long-lasting harm to vulnerable communities," she said.
The UN rights chief stressed that "the populations in these countries are in no way responsible for the policies being targeted by sanctions, and to varying degrees have already been living in a precarious situation for prolonged periods."
Bachelet stressed the importance of protecting health workers: "Medical professionals should never be punished by the authorities for pointing out deficiencies in the response to the crisis."
She urged world leaders to come together.
“No country can effectively combat this epidemic on its own," she said. "We need to act with solidarity, cooperation and care." – Rappler.com