Amid the virus crisis, the Iranian health minister urged citizens to reduce their use of paper currency to avoid spreading the infection. In India, the government asked banks to dissuade customers from using banknotes, and to make greater use of card and digital payments. This has created some hysteria in relation to cash payments  but according to the experts, concerns are unfounded.

The coronavirus pandemic has created a lot of fear, confusion, and distortions of truth. Despite numerous stories to the contrary, experts and agencies from around the world have reiterated: handling cash is not what people should be worried about.

How does the virus actually spread?

While experts have said that COVID-19 is able to survive on certain surfaces for a matter of hours, they maintain that it is not the hazard it is being made out to be.

According to the World Health Organisation (WHO), the novel coronavirus, which causes the disease COVID-19, is primarily propagated through close person-to-person contact. Specifically, through droplets, produced when an infected person coughs or sneezes, being transmitted to another person’s mouth, nose, or eyes.

“The amount of virus that is potentially on an inanimate object is usually very small,” explained Dr Christine Tait-Burkard, an expert in infection and immunity at the Roslin Institute at the University of Edinburgh.

There typically would not be much coronavirus on a person’s fingers, for instance, and it would still have to get past your respiratory system to infect you, Dr Tait-Burkard said.

The risk of infection through contact with currency is very low, “unless someone is using a bank note to sneeze in … [and] coins are actually very bad environments for viruses to survive,” she said.

The official message has been and continues to be, keep your distance from other people and wash your hands regularly.

Banknotes not a major part of the problem

While it is possible to contract the virus by touching a surface or object, it is not considered a main source of infection, and experts have been trying to quell concerns.

“The virus will not survive for very long on surfaces, particularly on a dry surface like a banknote,” explained Stephanie Brickman from the WHO.

This came after media reports that WHO had been concerned about the spread of the virus through cash payments.

“WHO did not say banknotes would transmit COVID-19, nor have we issued any warnings or statements about this,” said Fadela Chaib, a WHO spokeswoman, responding to an article in which WHO was misrepresented.

“We were asked if we thought banknotes could transmit COVID-19 and we said you should wash your hands after handling money, especially if handling or eating food.” Doing so is “good hygiene practice,” she added.

Apparently, reports that the Chinese government had asked banks to disinfect money before putting it back into circulation should not worry people.

“The virus could be present on money but likely for short times — hours — and would require direct deposit from an infected person by hand,” said Gary McLean, professor of molecular immunology at London Metropolitan University. The virus would not last on cash for extended periods of time, he added.

Clearly, there are other objects that people are in contact with far more than they are with cash. While virus transmission with banknotes is possible, it seems far more probably that someone could become infected by touching their face after their smartphone. There is evidence to suggest that the virus can survive a relatively long time on glass.

Rather than worrying about transmission with currency, experts suggest that people follow outbreak hygiene guidelines, such as maintaining social distancing, washing hands thoroughly and regularly, and breaking the habit of touching our face with our hands.

Another kind of pandemic that is presently engulfing the globe is the spread of false information. The rapid distribution of flagrantly inaccurate, unhelpful, or even harmful information is something we should be concerned about as a society. It would be in everyone’s interest if we were to consider being as thoughtful about our news sources and information gathering as we were about our bacterial hygiene, in an effort to slow the divisive spread of disinformation.