In times of crisis, the world turns to cash. It is a solid, reassuring presence you can exchange for groceries and supplies. It will not disappear during a power cut or internet outage, and there is no PIN to forget in a stressful moment.
So it is unfortunate that a study from Australian agency CSIRO—showing the coronavirus that causes COVID-19 may survive on surfaces such as glass, paper, plastics and stainless steel for days—has been turned into an attack on cash by some news outlets, singling banknotes out from the many surfaces covered by these materials.
The value of the work is that it highlights the importance of hand hygiene in preventing the spread of infection. While airborne transmission of the COVID-19 virus is stressed, and it is unclear how likely we are to contract it from surfaces, thorough hand washing is always advisable (and was before the pandemic began). It also provides an interesting point of comparison with other problematic viruses, such as Influenzas.
Among the drawbacks of the study, for the purpose of applying it to the real world, is that the experiments were carried out in the most ‘virus-friendly’ conditions, with stable temperatures and humidity, and in the dark, since UV light may kill the virus. These conditions are unlikely to be found in the real world!
The World Health Organization has emphasised that cash presents no particular risk of infection. The Robert Koch Institute—Germany’s world leading research institute—says banknotes have no significance in viral transmission. The European Central Bank, the Bank of International Settlements, the Reserve Bank of New Zealand, the Bank of Canada and the South African Reserve Bank are among those to confirm this stance.
We should trust the experts—and protect those for whom cash is their only payment option—rather than jump to conclusions. Otherwise, paranoia over hard surfaces may lead us to a world with no mobile phones, no books and no door handles!