Wellness in Worrying Times

Throughout Asia, and around the world, a holistic view of wellness is gaining in popularity. Photo: Farsai Chaikulngamdee
Throughout Asia, and around the world, a holistic view of wellness is gaining in popularity. Photo: Farsai Chaikulngamdee

By Irfan A. Qureshi, Donghyun Park, Pilipinas F. Quising, Shu Tian

Policies that promote wellness can help Asians navigate the uncertain, stressful COVID-19 world and achieve a better post-pandemic lifestyle.

COVID-19 has highlighted the importance of wellness. Fear, isolation, uncertainty, and economic hardship triggered by the pandemic and related containment measures have caused stress and anxiety around the world. Individuals with pre-existing physical conditions are far more vulnerable to the disease. And a May 2020 United Nations report warns of a global mental health crisis. Physical and mental wellness is coming to the fore as a key concern for individuals and a key policy priority for governments.

But what is wellness? At the broadest level, wellness is the pursuit of holistic health and well-being. It is multidimensional, encompassing various dimensions of well-being, from physical to mental to social to environmental. And wellness is not just for the rich—it is for everyone. It is, in fact, the third of the UN’s 17 Sustainable Development Goals: “to ensure healthy lives and promote well-being for all, at all ages.” Focusing on wellness for everyone as a policy objective broadens the focus of development beyond the narrow pursuit of economic growth. 

A special chapter on wellness in ADB’s Asian Development Outlook 2020 Update constructs a new index of wellness, based on physical, mental/intellectual, environmental, and social dimensions which allows for meaningful comparison of wellness across regions and countries.

Interestingly, while average wellness in developing Asia is close to the global average, it lags not only many wealthy, advanced economies but also Latin America and the Caribbean. Compared to developing Asia, Latin America and the Caribbean performs strictly better across all pillars, with the largest differences in environmental wellness between the two regions. There are also substantial differences across Asian economies, not all of which can be explained by income levels. And so, while rich countries such as Republic of Korea tend to score well, some lower-income countries such as Bhutan score relatively high as well.


COVID-19 will boost the demand for wellness in Asia. The wellness sector was already growing rapidly due to rising incomes, increasing incidence of non-communicable diseases, population aging, and worsening pollution. The rising demand gave rise to a ‘wellness economy’ consisting of industries, such as fitness, healthy eating and preventative medicine, that enable consumers to incorporate wellness activities and lifestyles into their daily lives.

Indeed, the wellness sector has become an increasingly important part of the world economy, with the Global Wellness Institute estimating its total size at $4.5 trillion in 2018, or about 5% of global GDP. It is an even bigger part of the economy of developing countries in Asia, accounting for an estimated 11% of the region’s GDP in 2017 and growing by about 10% annually in recent years.

The rapid expansion of the wellness economy can promote inclusive growth since many wellness-related occupations such as alternative medicine practitioners are female-dominated. Wellness micro-enterprises can leverage local heritage and indigenous ingredients to create wellness products. Developing countries in Asia have a plethora of rich wellness traditions to draw upon, for example tai chi and yoga. Asia’s two major systems of traditional health knowledge—Traditional Chinese Medicine and India’s Ayurveda—are each grounded in principles of living healthily and well throughout a person’s life.

What can policymakers do to support wellness? Wellness polices cut across four domains and should take a whole-of-life approach. To boost physical and mental well-being, Asian governments should help create a healthy urban environment; enable and support physical activity; encourage a healthy diet; and enhance wellness in the workplace. Furthermore, pursuing universal health care and strengthening primary health care can amplify the benefits of wellness for all Asians. Since healthy aging begins in childhood, a lifespan wellness policy framework such as Japan’s One Hundred Year Life policy should complement the four policy domains.

Since the poor have fewer opportunities for wellness activities, the government must make public investments in wellness infrastructure that benefit the poor. The combination of cross-cutting and lifelong wellness policies can help Asians navigate the uncertain, stressful COVID-19 world toward a better post-pandemic lifestyle. Such policies will also promote inclusive development and happier, more productive aging.