By Ethaniel Reyes
You know what they say: money makes the world go ‘round and ‘round.
It’s everywhere. It can come in different forms, the crumpled up greenbacks sitting in wallets, the jingly coins that shake in pockets, and the thousands of credit cards used in modern-day commerce. It’s touched, held, and exchanged from person-to-person.
But with the rise of the COVID-19 pandemic and its long lasting effects on how people view surfaces, how will the future of physical cash be affected by what lies ahead in a post-pandemic society?
As of September 17th, 2020, over 6.6 million people have been infected in the United States and nearly 200,000 people have lost their lives because of it. Roughly 777,000 people have been infected in California alone, with around 15,000 deaths. With these numbers, the country is currently the most infected in the world, with California having the highest number of infections out of all states.
So how exactly does the virus spread around and how can physical cash play a part? On their website, the Center for Disease Control and Prevention offered pointers on how the virus spreads. It states that the virus is mainly spread person-to-person, including people who are “in close contact with one another” or “through respiratory droplets produced when an infected person coughs, sneezes, or talks.”
The CDC also warns about touching entrance points on the body using dirty hands, saying that the virus can enter in the eyes, nose and mouth when people touch themselves there. However, the website says that “this is not thought to be the main way the virus spreads”, though the CDC admits that they are continuing to learn more about how the virus spreads.
Some news articles weighed the concerns of highly-touched surfaces and how possible contracting the virus can be from them. A New York Times article written by Tara Parker-Pope explained that this type of transmission, known as “fomite transmission”, still portrays risks associated with contracting the virus from highly-touched items, such as physical currency. Parker-Pope cited an outbreak in a shopping mall in Wenzhou, China completely driven by fomite transmission as an example of the possibilities it can lead to within a confined space.
“You have to come along and touch the contaminated surface, pick up enough viable virus on your hands, and then touch your eyes, nose or mouth. If all goes well for the virus, you will get sick,” she stated.
But like what CDC reports, this type of transmission isn’t the main cause of infection. Parker-Pope referenced Eugene Chuvnosky, a professor at City University of New York, uses the flu virus to explain why it isn’t. “It takes millions of copies of the influenza virus to infect a person through surface-to-hand-to-nose contact, but it may take only a few thousand copies to infect a person when the flu virus goes from the air directly into the lungs.” Likewise, the COVID-19 virus isn’t something that can easily infect a person via touching your face after touching a few banknotes and coins, despite making it more possible for the virus to enter the body.
On top of that, studies have shown that most of the germs found on physical currency aren’t related to infectious viruses. One such study was conducted in 2017 evaluated the types of germs on a sample of dollar bills. The results showed that the majority of bacteria that were found on these banknotes were related to the human body, such as the ones that cause acne. Disease-related organisms weren’t found as much and were often the minority in what the researchers had discovered.
Cashless payments are becoming more popular
Still, the pandemic has instilled massive fear in the public to the point where people have switched to digital payments. Olga Kharif’s Bloomberg article on contactless payments also mentioned the use of other mobile apps tied to payments such as Amazon Prime Now to order groceries from the retailer online. Other businesses such as Burger King have advertised an order-ahead app for drive-thru orders, and more cash exchange apps like Zelle have been developed for the public to use. Kharif cited Richard Crone, CEO of his own mobile-payment research firm, who expected contactless transactions to increase by 10-20% as a result of the ongoing pandemic.
Khafir also included a survey from a report that was released by the Strawhecker Group and the Electronic Transactions Association in April. Out of a sample of 361 small businesses, “27% of U.S. small businesses have seen an increase in customers using services like Apple Pay”. But usage of mobile payment apps like Apple Pay have been increasing since way before the pandemic. Data from EMarketer showed that between 2018 and 2019, the number of people in the U.S. using mobile forms of payment increased from 58.7 to 69.4 million users. The data predicts that the number is going to continue to increase up to 70 and 80 million in the next few years.
It’s still not likely that cash will go away
Even with all this public fear, cash still needs to be an integral part of money exchange. According to a report in April from the Bank of International Settlements, a lot is currently being done for people to trust the usage of cash despite the pandemic. Central banks around the world are giving assuring statements about the low risk of getting infected through fomite transmission. One example is the Bank of England, who noted that “the risk posed by handling a polymer note is no greater than touching any other common surfaces such as handrails, door knobs or credit cards”.
In addition to this, banks are also opting to sterilize banknotes and release them back into circulation. The Federal Reserve is taking action to sterilize and quarantine bills that came from Asia before putting them back into circulation.
As well as that, a large portion of people still depend on physical cash as a means to make everyday transactions. According to a 2017 report from the Federal Deposit Insurance corporation, around 6.5% of Americans, which is roughly 14.1 million adults in the United States, are considered “unbanked” — they do not have a bank account or any affiliation with a bank. Unbanked rates were higher among groups that were at a disadvantage, including those of marginalized communities, those with disabilities, and those of lower income. Because there are still high populations of people who are dependent on the usage of physical cash, it wouldn’t be possible to get rid of it completely despite a worldwide pandemic.
Even though the virus is something that has instilled fear in the general population, banknotes and coins are here to stay for the time being. Transmission of the virus isn’t common among touching currency and too many people are dependent on using them on a day-to-day basis. Although the rates of contactless payments are increasing, physical cash will still continue to be a means of payment and exchange.
Featured Image (at the top of this page): Swiss 1,000-franc banknotes, currently worth $1,100 apiece. Cash remains king in countries around the world, despite the COVID-19 pandemic. (PHOTO CREDIT: pixy.org)