By Richard Giedroyc
Talk about dirty money! What about money laundering? Fear of the coronavirus epidemic spreading worldwide is resurrecting the urban legend about how germs on our physical money may be making us sick.
At the time this article was being written no one yet knew for certain how the coronavirus (officially known as COVID-19) is spread. It was known the disease can be passed person to person, but if the spread is generated through breathing the same air, touching an infected person, touching bank notes the infected person used, or some other mechanism is yet to be learned.
It has been verified the disease is zoonotic, having been initially spread from animals to humans at an illegal live animal market in Wuhan, China. The market has since been shut down by authorities, but not before the virus had spread. Since that time travel between China and the rest of the world has been limited in an effort to contain spread of the disease. Travel within China has also been limited for the same reasons.
The coronavirus and its possible connection to physical cash is grabbing all sorts of headlines. Many of these headlines ignore the World Health Organization’s official statement: “The risk of being infected with the new coronavirus by touching coins, bank notes, credit cards, and other objects is very low.” The WHO website repudiates several myths surrounding money and germs found on it.
This hasn’t stopped the media from pointing out just how many germs lurk on our money. A Feb. 18International Business Times article pointed to a 2013 study that identified E.coli, Vancomycin-resistant Enterococci (VRE), and Staphylococcus on bank notes “with bacteria survival rates being the highest in the Romanian Leu,” while acknowledging “they [bank notes] do not easily pass diseases to people.”
The Oct. 2, 2018 Moneywise.com post reads: “If you haven’t ditched cash in favor of a card or contactless yet, you might want to think again. New research from London Metropolitan University and financial website Money.co.uk has revealed that the cash in your pocket could be home to life-threatening bacteria such as MRSA and listeria.”
Money.co.uk Editor in Chief Hannah Maundrell was quick to throw gasoline on the fire, stating: “We were really shocked when the results revealed two of the world's most dangerous bacteria were on the money we tested…These findings could reinforce the argument for moving towards a cashless society and might be the nail in the coffin for our filthy coppers. I suspect people may think twice before choosing to pay with cash knowing they could be handed back change laced with superbugs."
A Jan. 3, 2017 article by Dina Fine Maron appearing in Scientific American is one of many articles that isn’t charitable to cash, suggesting “Perhaps all money should be laundered.”
The Scientific American article concedes, “There is no definitive research that connects enough dots to prove dirty money actually makes people sick, but we do have strong circumstantial evidence: influenza, norovirus, rhinovirus, and others have all been transmitted via hand-to-hand or surface-to-hand contact in studies, suggesting pathogens could readily travel a hand-money-hand route. In one study 10 subjects handled a coffee cup contaminated with rhinovirus—and half subsequently developed an infection.”
Cashless society proponent Kenneth Rogoff, the author of The Curse of Cash, suggests health is one of the reasons countries such as Sweden have been abandoning physical cash in favor of electronic payment systems.
In an effort to curb the spread of coronavirus, on Feb. 15 the Guangzhou branch of China’s central bank announced banks must disinfect all bank notes before the notes are distributed. An order was also given instructing all bank notes from high-risk areas such as banks, buses, and wet markets be destroyed.
People’s Bank of China Vice Governor Fan Yifei said China’s money supply will not be disrupted, with 4 billion yuan (about $572 million USD) in new bank notes already allocated to Hubei province. Fan said the central bank will temporarily store bank notes from major government institutes and state enterprises in warehouses to prevent the disease from spreading through handling cash.
According to Fan the central bank is encouraging people to use online banking services, e-shopping, and online utility payments. Fan added he is certain the epidemic will not cause any significant inflation since the government is managing cash flow and the supply of commodities.
China Banking and Insurance Regulatory Commission Vice Chairman Liang Tao added the banking system has set 537 billion yuan (about $76.8 billion USD) aside to provide credit support for domestic businesses and government institutions to fight the epidemic. Banks have also been instructed to postpone business loan repayments.
Despite China’s actions and the statements from the WHO on Feb. 19 the Bank of Korea, South Korea’s central bank, announced it was no longer accepting foreign coins and bank notes in an effort to avoid spreading the coronavirus. The Bank of Korea also closed its currency museum “as a precaution.”
More recently it was announced the Eighth Hong Kong Coin Show has been postponed from March until May. What else will follow?