A recent letter written by the Confederation of All India Traders to Finance Minister Nirmala Sitharaman about the possible spread of coronavirus through currency notes has revived concerns around handling of cash during an epidemic. The Confederation of All India Traders, a body representing five crore small traders, also wrote to Prime Minister Narendra Modi on March 11, urging him to drive India towards the adoption of polymer currency.

While there is no conclusive scientific study that links the spread of the current strain of coronavirus to contaminated currency notes, the World Health Organisation has advised taking measures to maintain proper hygiene post handling of notes. Even the Reserve Bank Of India has refrained from issuing any statement on avoiding the usage of paper currency.

“...usage of paper currency which is [the] most dreaded carrier for different viruses and infections due to rapid change of hands between unknown people and thus becomes a health hazard”, the body said in its letter to Modi. It cited the safety of polymer currency, mentioning 13 countries who have switched entirely to these notes, ditching paper variants, and more than 15 countries in line to do so.

Data from the central bank shows that there were 10,875 crore banknotes in circulation as of March 31, 2019, according to a report released by on August 29, 2019. Additionally, the data show 12,000 crore coins in circulation. These sentiments were also echoed by the the research desk of the State Bank of India through their publication Ecowrap, which touched upon the issue on March 17. They cited the confederation’s letter, the adoption of polymer-based currency and went a step further to cite various studies conducted in India showing the previous instances where Indian banknotes were found to consist of pathogens.

  • A 2015 study conducted by King George’s Medical University, Lucknow, showed that almost an entire sample of 96 banknotes and 48 coins were contaminated with virus, fungus and bacteria. 
  • A 2016 study conducted in Tamil Nadu showed 86.4% of 120 banknotes collected from doctors, banks, markets, butchers, students and housewives had various disease causing pathogens.  
  • Another 2016 from Karnataka study showed 58 of 100 notes of Rs 100, Rs 50, Rs 20 and Rs 10 were contaminated.

Global concerns

These concerns about contaminated currencies have been reflected in other countries too. The Peoples’ Bank of China has undertaken the disinfection of cash through ultraviolet light, high temperatures, quarantining it for 14 days and the destruction of existing cash. In the United States, some banks have reportedly asked the Federal Reserve and the Treasury to vouch for the safety of bank bills.

Covid-19 is the latest string in the coronavirus family and the World Health Organisation has stated that it is not certain how long Covid-19 survives on surfaces. However, it has said that “studies suggest that coronaviruses (including preliminary information on the COVID-19 virus) may persist on surfaces for a few hours or up to several days. This may vary under different conditions (eg type of surface, temperature or humidity of the environment).” Another study conducted by two German universities in the Journal of Hospital Infections pegs the following time frames for the persistence of viruses from the coronavirus family, not Covid-19, on various surfaces.

Source: Journal of Hospital Infections via Boom Live

Towards digital payments?

While institutions around the world have stopped short of recommending the avoidance of currency, they have advised caution. Speaking to the Telegraph on March 2, the World Health Organisation said, “Yes it’s possible and it’s a good question. We know that money changes hands frequently and can pick up all sorts of bacteria and viruses and things like that. We would advise people to wash their hands after handling banknotes, and avoid touching their face. When possible it’s a good idea to use contactless payments.”

However, fact checking website Snopes reported that the World Health Organisation later clarified that it was not propagating contactless payments as a way to stop Covid-19’s transmission, and that they had not issued banknote related guidelines. Boom reached out to the World Health Organisation for a comment on this, and will update the story on receiving one.

Meanwhile, the Reserve Bank of India issued an advisory dated March 16, alerting citizens to various forms of digital payment, and how it is relevant in the current scenario. A senior RBI official who did not wish to be named told Boom, “The jury is still out there on the spread of the virus through notes. Therefore, we are not saying do not use cash, we are just making the alternatives known so people can avoid crowded and public places.”

The advisory states, “In the context of the efforts to limit the fallout of the coronavirus pandemic by avoiding social contact and visit to public places, public can use these modes of digital payment from the convenience of their homes through online channels like mobile banking, internet banking, cards, and avoid using cash which may require going to crowded places for sending money or paying bills.”

Covid-19 is the latest coronavirus disease which has infected at least 427,510 people globally, and has killed more than as many as 18,947 as governments around the world are grappling with limiting its fallout. As the disease spreads by contact, international and regional health organisations have thus recommended measures including social distancing and self-quarantines to help inhibit the spread of the deadly virus.

This article first appeared on Boom Live.