Coronavirus: banknotes no worse than other objects

There has been a surprising emphasis placed on the role of banknotes in the spread of the coronavirus. As the pandemic only intensifies, it has become clear that there are a great many other objects and surfaces on which the virus can survive — and we cannot seem to stop touching them. Excessive focus on cash by certain governments and media is muddying the discussion over the most serious health crisis in living memory and creating cognitive blind spots in the population which could put people at risk.

The UK government has moved from an official position of allowing everyone to become infected to a nationwide lockdown like much of Europe, with the Prime Minister and a number of cabinet ministers confirmed to have contracted the virus.

We have come a long way since the first cases of infection reported out of China. As the reality of the initial outbreak slowly dawned on leaders there, moves were made to destroy banknotes that came from infected areas, and efforts were made to disinfect notes before returning them to circulation. Commentators have noted that not only was this strategically ineffective, banknotes were not likely to be more of a threat than any else.

"Disinfecting and bringing new notes into circulation would benefit more physiologically than actually reduce the infection rates drastically," said Sizun Jiang, a virology expert and postdoctoral research fellow at Stanford University.
There are countless other surfaces that we interact with more frequently than banknotes, he explained.


Epidemiological understanding of the novel coronavirus has only developed in line with the spread of the disease, adding to an already frightening situation.

As a potentially fatal respiratory condition, “the disease can spread from person to person through small droplets from the nose or mouth which are spread when a person with COVID-19 coughs or exhales,” the World Health Organization (WHO) said, encouraging social distancing in order to reduce the rate of transmission.

Experts, including those from the US Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC), state that it is possible that a person can get COVID-19 by touching a surface or an object that has the virus on it and then touching their own mouth, nose, or possibly their eyes, but this is not thought to be the main way the virus spreads.

Contact surfaces

Any common item that you can think of is a potential surface on which the virus can be present. Door handles, elevator controls, public handrails, car keys, debit cards, your mobile phone — these are all things we should be thinking about.
According to Dr Julia Marcus, a specialist in infectious diseases, people are much more likely to be infected by close contact with an infected person than by touching a contaminated surface. But, it is still important to be conscious of what you are touching and be careful about cleaning your hands afterwards.

Just as important is how long the virus can survive on a given surface

At present, the evidence suggests that solid surfaces like plastic, steel, and glass are the most hospitable for the virus. The New England Journal of Medicine published a study demonstrating that the virus was still detectable on copper for up to 4 hours, on cardboard for up to 24 hours, and on plastic and steel for up to 72 hours. It is worth noting that the amount of virus found on these surfaces decreased over time, rendering them increasingly less likely to cause infection.
A representative from WHO said that "the virus will not survive for very long on surfaces, particularly on a dry surface like a banknote." So, while banknotes could carry the coronavirus, the risk is relatively minor. There might even be more risk from the use of debit cards and card readers than there is from cash payments, given that the virus can survive for longer on plastic surfaces.

After contact with any object outside our household, we should be washing our hands thoroughly, as experts have repeatedly suggested. We should also resist touching our face, as this gives opportunity for the virus to theoretically make the leap to our respiratory system.

Availability bias

So why have people been singling out currency as a source for the virus to spread? It seems likely that this hysteria is partly caused by availability bias, a cognitive error in which how readily something comes to mind affects how likely we think it is to occur.

That is to say, it is easy to think about money changing hands, so it is the first object certain people concern themselves with during an infectious outbreak. But are they also thinking about card payments, the packaging on the items they buy at the supermarket, or the terminal to their apartment building?

They certainly should be, because these things are just as likely as anything else to be a source of viral transmission.

Go Further

The cashless society from an ethical point of view

The debate about the move towards a cashless society has been at the center of the scene for several years, now. Various angles have been taken by economists, politicians, banking institutions and sociologists. Beyond the technicalities of the debate, lies the question of freedom, of inter-citizen solidarity and of governmental responsibility. The debate cannot remain in the hands of financial specialists, it is first and foremost an ethical, political and societal issue.

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