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COVID wellness retreats
Via Instagram (@thebodyholiday)

Post-COVID wellness retreats: disaster capitalism or a helpful resource?

Several companies are now offering fitness, nutrition, and wellness getaways – some starting at £3k – for long COVID sufferers seeking answers outside of traditional medicine

With COVID cases still rising in many areas across the world, we’re learning more about long COVID. Because the virus is new and long COVID impacts people in different ways, there’s no one-size-fits-all treatment. This is perhaps why many patients are turning to alternative medicine. More specifically: long COVID wellness retreats and the growing wellness travel market.

According to guidance for UK health workers, long COVID is characterised by symptoms continuing for more than 12 weeks after a COVID-19 infection (severe or mild) which can't be explained by another cause. For some, this can be extreme tiredness and shortness of breath, for others this can include problems with memory and concentration – known as ‘brain fog’. Long COVID travel retreats claim to assist with the management of these systems, with the aim of strengthening your immune system again (in between pool visits and other holiday activities).

At Vivamayr Medical Resorts – which has two resort locations in Austria – there’s a “post-COVID” program to get your body “stabilised and strengthened”. The services range from medical exams to individual diet plans to heated mud beds and yoga.

The website also mentions fasting or reducing food intake to strengthen the immune system, which is something the girlboss of wellness culture Gwyneth Paltrow said she was using to treat her long COVID symptoms – a claim that was condemned by the NHS. Then there’s Park Igls, another health retreat in Austria that promises to “help you get back on your feet after corona”, with treatments including personal training, body massages, and “liver compresses with beeswax”.

The two-week program at Vivamayr will set you back €5,470 (£4.7k), while the Park Igls program starts at €3,571 (£3k). The irony of this high price point is not lost. The image of well-off people running off to long COVID retreats while essential workers continue to contract and die from COVID – especially when travel restrictions globally are making it more expensive and difficult to travel than ever before – feels like disaster capitalism at its finest. But could these retreats actually work?

Dr David Strain, who’s playing a leading role in the British Medical Association’s (BMA) COVID response, and who is researching long COVID as part of his job as a senior clinical lecturer at the University of Exeter Medical School, says he’s not against long COVID patients incorporating wellness practices into their treatment, as long as it’s not a replacement for medical advice.

“From what we’ve seen, one of the first things to demonstrate benefits in long COVID was breathing exercises like singing lessons or yoga,” he tells Dazed Beauty. 

Dr Strain encourages patients to try the alternative techniques that they believe work for them, alongside medical treatment, and wants patients to “come back and tell your doctor” if they find something that works. “Some people have come back and said yoga worked for them, but these are very small numbers so not enough to change practice yet,” Dr Strain says. He does warn, however, that some of the wellness treatments like acupuncture are not going to be a cure. “I’m not aware of any research that says it can reduce inflammatory responses, but it could teach you techniques of energy management.”

Andrew Barnard, deputy managing director of Sunswept Resorts, says that so far he has seen about 50 or 60 people through the COVID Convalescence Programme offered at the Bodyholiday Resort in St Lucia. The “non-medical programme” aims to strengthen the respiratory system to aid recovery and general respiratory health, with treatments including yoga, Reiki, Manual Lymphatic Drainage, hypnotherapy, and osteopathy. He expects this interest to continue to grow in the post-pandemic landscape. The offerings start at $800 (£588) per person.

“If we can get to a position where we find the elements of long COVID retreats which are the actual benefits – not just rich people on a holiday – then we can actually figure out ways to bring that to the masses” – Dr David Strain

Beyond physical signs of improvement, Bodyholiday has also tapped into an area that’s an important part of recovery for many: spirituality. “We’re going to see more people seeking self care within their vacations and leisure time, wanting to have a glass of wine and dance at night, but also get up and do a beach bootcamp and meditate,” Barnard says. “People are looking for more meaning at the moment, something they can hold onto and be part of, and my mission is to strengthen that for people and help them forge their own sense of purpose.”

Dr. Strain says the most impactful part of the retreats themselves might be in the downtime itself. “The key elements of a retreat are actually the ability to go away, relax, and take some down time,” says Dr. Strain, emphasising that this is crucial to COVID recovery. For those without the means or the time, he recommends spending at least 10 minutes a day to focus on something that you find is beneficial, whether that’s breathing exercises or yoga on YouTube.

“If we can get to a position where we find the elements of long COVID retreats which are the actual benefits – not just rich people on a holiday – then we can actually figure out ways to bring that to the masses,” he says.

Whether post-COVID wellness retreats are disaster capitalism or not is almost beside the point, as the travel industry is bound to adapt to a volatile market. So, too, is whether or not everyone believes in the benefits. Because while we can’t all escape to a luxury post COVID wellness program, it’s clear that those struggling with long COVID need the retreat to come to them, through leave from work and assistance at home.

This might not be possible for everyone, but it should be the core root of incorporating more wellness ideas into traditional medicine. After all, the core takeaway from these retreats is the offering of something only the privileged can currently get their hands on but we all desperately need: rest.