Science does not back the recent stigmatisation of cash. The risk of contracting COVID-19 from handling notes and coins is ‘extremely low’, according to Dr Neal Goldstein of Drexel University in the U.S. The risk of unbanked households being denied access to goods and services because a supplier has gone cashless is, however, considerable.
The coronavirus that causes COVID-19 can survive on surfaces for days, like many other viruses and indeed bacteria. The science demonstrating this has seen some news outlets spreading scare stories about transmission via coins and banknotes, with far less consideration given to the dozens of other surfaces we touch during a shopping trip. In fact, while keeping hands and frequently-touched surfaces clean is always a good way to reduce the spread of infections, this coronavirus seems to be transmitted far more readily via person to person contact.
When we look at transmission patterns, they are happening from person to person. Surface transmission is really a negligible component of transmission for coronavirus, and the likelihood of getting COVID-19 from touching money is extremely low.
According to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, COVID-19 most commonly spreads between people in close contact (within around six feet) through respiratory droplets produced when an infected person speaks, coughs or sneezes. It can also spread through airborne transmission: the virus is so small that it can linger in aerosols that may remain in the air for minutes or even hours. Surface transmission is thought to be the rarest of these routes.
With millions of households across the U.S. (and 1.7 billion people worldwide) lacking bank accounts—for reasons such as not being able to meet minimum balance requirements, or a distrust of the banking system—a move to cashless will harm those who are already more vulnerable in periods of economic uncertainty. It will also disproportionately affect Americans of colour and minorities, with approximately 14 percent of Black households and 12 percent of Hispanic households unbanked.
Some businesses are trying to pursue all cashless transactions, but unfortunately that has a repercussion of discriminating against people that don’t have credit. To say they don’t want to take cash because of the virus, that’s an incorrect approach and the evidence doesn’t support that.
In 2019, Philadelphia led the way in legislating against cashless businesses, ensuring cash can be used in all its stores. Other states and municipalities have followed suit, and the coronavirus pandemic has not changed that, with good reason. Dr Goldstein concludes: ‘Transmission through cash is low, and it shouldn’t be viewed as an irresponsible way to pay for something.’