After the coronavirus outbreak in 2019, scientists around the world have been extensively researching the means by which the novel coronavirus can spread. Although many restrictive guidelines like wearing face coverings, social distancing, and constant sanitization have been released by authorities to control the spread of the Covid 19 infection, the infection rate is seen venturing new heights every day. While we know that thorough sanitization of inanimate surfaces, proper disposal of face masks, and basic Covid 19 health protocol can reduce the extent of the spread of the deadly virus, is it possible that something as consistent as money can carry the germ?
Sufficient research and data have proven that the coronavirus germ can remain on some surfaces for longer than 24 hours. According to a recent study published in the Virology Journal, researchers found that the Covid 19 germs can remain on surfaces for about 28 days, including paper money or currency notes, phone screens and stainless steel. The study also found that the virus survives longer at lower temperatures and tended to last longer on non-porous or smooth surfaces such as glass and stainless steel rather than porous or rough surfaces such as cotton. "Establishing how long the virus really remains viable on surfaces enables us to more accurately predict and mitigate its spread and do a better job of protecting our people," Larry Marshall, the CEO of Australia's national science agency CSIRO, said in a statement.
The items were left undisturbed in the dark (to avoid UV light which can inactivate the virus) for observing their survival, but as we know, phone screens and currency notes are often moved around when exchanged amongst people, which could possibly wipe off the virus. "What we're seeing empirically, clinically, with contact tracing, is that COVID is not spreading heavily through touch," Colin Furness, an infection control epidemiologist at the University of Toronto, told CTV News. "It is possible to contract the virus through surfaces, but it's not happening very often," he explained.
Earlier this year, both China and South Korea began disinfecting or 'sterilizing' every banknote using UV light or high heat before putting them back into circulation. They also quarantined their bank bills for 14 days in hopes that any lingering viruses would die off to better the disease control in their country.
In early March, a World Health Organization (WHO) spokesperson suggested that people should avoid using cash or coins if possible, as a major step towards preserving public health. It was later clarified that the WHO was not formally issuing COVID-19 specific guidance with regards to using contactless payments. The world's primary health organization is rather encouraging people to use as many electronic or digital payment options like using a credit card, debit card, online wallets, or UPI services.
"We know that money changes hands frequently and can pick up all sorts of bacteria and viruses and things like that," a WHO representative told The Telegraph. "We would advise people to wash their hands after handling banknotes and avoid touching their faces." Cashless transactions may not be a permanent or convenient solution as not every individual can pay off their expenses with the help of plastic or digital payment alternatives as their livelihood may revolve around paper currency.
Another study conducted by The New England Journal of Medicine, SARS-CoV-2, the virus that causes the disease COVID 19 can live on surfaces like a dollar bill. The period of time the virus survives is highly dependent on the surface itself as well as the location's environmental conditions. At most, the virus is capable of persisting for 2 to 3 days under optimal conditions.
The chairperson of the George Washington University School of Medicine's department of microbiology, immunology, and tropical medicine, Dr. Sanjay Maggirwar, recently told CBS MoneyWatch that researchers think coronavirus "can stay on surfaces in their fully active states for at least 10 days. That includes cash and all kinds of other surfaces that people normally touch. So certainly with the coronavirus, cash handling is a concern." Public health officials and health experts have said that although the risk of transferring the virus person to person through the use of banknotes is low, they still consider it a viable factor, as it could spread the infection if it then gets into their mouth or nose.
Some e-commerce platforms like Zomato, Amazon, and Flipkart were even refusing to accept currency or Cash On Delivery as a payment option in the initial months of the countrywide lockdown. Several countries have urged their citizens to stop using banknotes altogether. This brings us to the question if we are to use cash, how can we safely do so?
How to Sanitise Money?
Cash really is notoriously covered in germs. Studies suggest that paper bills can contain bacteria and viruses, leading to the spread of disease. The lifespan of various bills ranges 4 to 15 years, according to the Federal Reserve, meaning your bills have plenty of time to accumulate germs.
When WHO warned people to preferably indulge in cashless transactions than use cash, they were misinterpreted as trying to claim that money can actually carry the coronavirus.
"We did NOT say that cash was transmitting coronavirus," a WHO spokeswoman Fadela Chaib told MarketWatch. "We were misrepresented," she added. "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." She insisted that doing so instills good hygiene practice.
Even as digital payments are growing at an exponential rate in India, cash is still widely used. But can the paper currency be sanitized like the surfaces, packages, and food items that we are carefully disinfecting once we get home? Currency notes at the end of the day are highly deterrable, if not used carefully. Thus, washing the notes is a challenging task and can rather damage the note if done harshly. Some of the popular methods of cleaning the currency include vinegar and salt, soapy water, or even antibacterial spray. However, you need to be extra careful about not cleaning it in high temperatures and not using corrosive chemicals like bleach or chlorine.
The Confederation of All India Traders has suggested the Indian Government to switch to polymer notes, which is currency made from synthetic polymers, like the currency found in UK, Australia, and Canada. Apart from long-lasting durability, these notes can provide greater safety, especially during the COVID 19 pandemic. However, it would be comparatively more expensive than the current paper notes produced in India.
In a recent article by Economic Times, a few steps were noted that can be adopted on an everyday basis to avoid getting the virus on your money.
- Switch To Digital Payments: The Modi Govt's biggest pitch since 2014 has been of a cashless economy. The country is rapidly moving towards digital payments and mobile payment apps like Google Pay, Paytm, JIO Money, or Payzapp. People can choose to use these apps over hard cash to stick to contactless payments. Credit or debit cards can be used whenever and wherever a machine is available, and of course sanitizing the cards later with your regular disinfectant (gel, spray, or liquid).
- Wear Disposable Gloves: Wearing a glove and a mask is now mandatory when you step out of the house as per the new health regulations. When in close proximity with a vendor or a shopkeeper or while you are out buying essentials, make sure you also don't touch the change that you give or get from them directly. Using a glove as a barrier between the contagion and your hand can be highly effective in preventing any contact with virus particles and is also easily disposable once used. Remember to always dispose of the glove in a closed trash can to ensure others' safety.
- Iron Your Notes: People have reportedly tried to wash the currency in a washing machine or have put them on a hot plate in a microwave. Another tip on the similar lines can be to iron them the money as germs can be killed with heat. Just put an old newspaper on the bottom and place your money on it and iron them at a very low temperature. Make sure you don't iron them at a very high temperature or you just might end up burning them.
- Have A Separate Bag For Your Money: What happens if you are at work and your colleague or your boss, hands you some money? Firstly, make sure to preferably not to touch them without having gloves on. If the gloves are not available, you can just make sure to keep a separate bag or pouch on you, just in case. A washable bag or pouch and the currency that you can easily sanitize or iron once you are home.
- Coin Laundry: Cleaning your coins is far simpler than disinfecting notes. Just place them in warm water or you can use dishwashing detergent and clean them using a toothbrush.