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The UN rights chief on Tuesday called for any sanctions imposed on countries like Iran to be "urgently re-evaluated" to avoid pushing strained medical systems into collapse due to the coronavirus.

"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 quoted by AFP.

"In a context of global pandemic, impeding medical efforts in one country heightens the risk for all of us," she added.

Bachelet insisted that "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 AFP 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.

Bachelet's office stressed that more than 50 Iranian medics had died since the first COVID-19 case was detected in the country five 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."

Iran faces US sanctions which block the country from selling its crude oil and accessing international financial markets, but Washington has offered Iran help in fighting the coronavirus.

On Monday, Iranian President Hassan Rouhani made clear that Iran had no intention of accepting the United States’ offer of humanitarian assistance and added that United States should lift sanctions if it wants to help Iran to contain the virus.

Rouhani’s comments come a day after Iran’s Supreme Leader Ali Khamenei refused US assistance to fight COVID-19, claiming the virus could be man-made by America.

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