BANGALORE - The turquoise backwaters of Kerala are often touted as a balm for the restless traveller, but they may now offer even more therapeutic respite: The government in the southern state has decided to convert houseboats in this tourist haven into floating Covid-19 isolation wards.
Alappuzha district, known as the "Venice of the East" for its greenery-fringed canals and tranquil lagoons, has thousands of houseboats. These floating homes - many of them well-appointed with toilets, bedrooms and mosquito nets - offer cruises, home-cooked meals and fishing lessons to tourists.
As they lie empty during India's nationwide lockdown and the curbs on travel the world over, the district administration has found a new role for them.
"Since we do not have many hospitals in the district, we have identified 5,806 beds with attached toilets from hotels, resorts, hostels and lodges to accommodate patients, if there is a need," Alappuzha district commissioner M Anjana told news agency PTI.
In addition, the Houseboat Owners Association has offered about 2,000 rooms in houseboats to double up as isolation centres for people suspected of being infected with coronavirus.
An official from the health department said there would be medical support on board the boats. If someone isolated in a houseboat tests positive for Covid-19, the boat will be detached from the group of vessels and the person shifted to hospital.
Mr Kevin Rozario, general secretary of the All Kerala Houseboat Owners and Operators Association, said he thought it was unlikely that foreign tourists would come to the state soon, given the global Covid-19 crisis.
"In these trying times, the least we can do as responsible members of society is to help the government's efforts in trying to contain the virus," he said.
In Kerala's massive floods in 2018, houseboat operators helped rescue thousands stranded in the deluge.
Alappuzha district is home to India's second Covid-19 case. The returnee from Wuhan tested positive on Feb2, but in two weeks became the first person in the country to recover from the disease.
Alappuzha has seen only five positive cases, and no deaths.
Kerala's rapid containment strategy, early awareness campaigns, contact tracing, aggressive testing, and cooked meals from community kitchens are seen as a model for the rest of India. The state has logged 364 cases, two fatalities and 123 recoveries.