Governments quarantine banknotes as coronavirus puts ‘dirty’ money in spotlight

By on 19/03/2020
Some countries are 'deep cleaning' bank notes to remove traces of coronavirus, though they aren't thought to pose a higher risk than any other surface

Governments worldwide are quarantining bank notes, as the coronavirus pandemic puts the spotlight on the germ-spreading properties of ‘real’ money.

The US, South Korea and China have all been taking action amid concerns that the disease could be spread by paper money and coins.

The US Federal Reserve (‘The Fed’) has been quarantining dollars repatriated from Asia before recirculating them, as a precautionary measure against spreading the virus, according to a Reuters report.

The Fed has sought advice from the US Centers for Disease Control and Prevention before taking other measures regarding cash. Meanwhile, industry groups and banks have been urging the Fed and US Treasury Department to issue a statement assuring people that using cash poses minimal risk, according to news agency Bloomberg.

In South Korea, the country’s central bank has been removing bank notes from circulation for two weeks to remove traces of coronavirus – and even burning some as it attempts to stem the outbreak, according to Reuters.  

“For all cash coming to the central bank from local banks, the Bank of Korea will keep it in a safe for two weeks, given that the virus usually dies out after nine days,” a Bank of Korea official told Reuters.

Earlier measures to tackle the cash risk in China have included ‘deep cleaning’ and destroying potentially infected cash, according to reports. Measures have included disinfecting notes with either ultraviolet light or high temperatures, then storing them for between seven to 14 days before returning them to circulation.

BoE: Cash risk ‘no greater than other surfaces’

As coronavirus spreads, public health authorities worldwide are urging people to regularly wash their hands and disinfect frequently touched surfaces, such as smartphone screens.

UK government institutions have not advised people to avoid cash, although the Bank of England (BoE) has acknowledged that banknotes “can carry bacteria or viruses” and urged people to wash their hands regularly. The BoE has introduced polymer notes in recent years, which are considered more durable and cleaner than old paper versions.

The BoE said: “Like any other surface that large numbers of people come into contact with, notes can carry bacteria or viruses. However, the risk posed by handling a polymer note is no greater than touching any other common surface, such as handrails, doorknobs or credit cards.”

The World Health Organization (WHO) has pushed back on a report in UK newspaper The Telegraph that quoted a WHO official as saying: “We know that money changes hands frequently and can pick up all sorts of bacteria and viruses. We would advise people to wash their hands after handling banknotes, and avoid touching their face. When possible, it would also be advisable to use contactless payments to reduce the risk of transmission.” The Switzerland-headquartered WHO has since sought to emphasise that it had not said that cash was transmitting coronavirus.  

Nonetheless, some visitor attractions have moved to encourage non-cash payments. These include the Louvre art museum in Paris, which has shifted to card-only payments among various anti-virus measures. This is despite the Bank of France warning that refusing cash is unnecessary and illegal.

Change in payments habits

Payments technologies commentators are already considering whether the crisis could accelerate the trend towards non-cash payment methods, with Payments Source saying that corona could trigger a “drastic” change in payment habits.

However, the short-term uncertainty and concern among populations about what the future holds could actually prompt some people to stockpile cash, according to a piece in the Wall Street Journal.  

About Ian Hall

Ian is a former editor of Public Affairs News (2007-2011), who has most recently worked as UK director for the pan-European media network Euractiv (2011-2018). He is also a former news editor of PR Week (2000-2007). He was shortlisted for ‘Editor of the Year’ at the British Society of Magazine Editors (BSME) Awards in 2010. He began his career in Bulgaria at English-language weekly the Sofia Echo. Ian has an MA in Urban and Regional Change in Europe and a BA in Economics, both from Durham University.

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