Life before COVID-19: You walk into a supermarket, buy a few things, give in a solid currency note, receive change in the form of notes and coins, and walk out. You go about life, touching your face, eyes, mouth, and walk into another store. To buy more things, you utilize the change you received from the other shop. Eventually, that money goes into the cashier's box and ends up in someone else's hand.
The money we use, receive, and store has been handled by countless hands, but we never really took that into consideration prior to the recent coronavirus pandemic. The latter is a highly contagious virus that has infected over 2.8 million people worldwide.
Life after COVID-19: You try to avoid cash at any cost. But if needs be, you make sure to spray the money with alcohol before putting it away in your wallet and you're on alert on where you place your hands prior to washing. (The latter process now takes form over the course of 20 seconds at the minimum.)
So why is this? Could it be that money is really that dirty? Apparently so. And it's not just physical money. It's also debit/credit cards used in PoS transactions as they get swiped by other individuals and/or sit on restaurant tables for more than a mere three seconds, catching all different kinds of germs.
Awareness surrounding "dirty money" only spiked in outreach following the COVID-19 outbreak despite the fact that researchers have been talking about this for years.
A 2019 study found that coins, cash, credit, and debit cards are some of the filthiest items you can come into contact with. A team of researchers from LendEDU used a scientific device to test for bacteria on a given surface. To do so, they examined 41 different credit/debit cards, 27 bills, and 12 coins; they then recorded the average germ score of each. Obviously, the higher the germ score, the filthier the item is.
The germ scores were as follows:
- Cash: 160
- Credit/debit cards: 285
- Coins: 136
Contrary to popular belief, the aforementioned study showed that credit/debit cards are actually the mot preferred home of germs. One reason for this could be that they are used more frequently than cash nowadays. Still, that doesn't mean banknotes are actually safe and germ-free.
According to a 2014 research conducted by Mastercard and the University of Oxford, the average banknote carries up to 26,000 types of bacteria including E. Coli.
Academic researchers have also raised awareness on the issue. In a 2014 study, a group of researchers revealed that paper currency and coins could lead to the spread of nosocomial infections, contagions that are caught in a hospital and are caused by organisms resistant to antibiotics.
Laboratory simulations conducted as part of the study revealed that staphylococcus aureus, a bacteria responsible for bone and joint infections, can easily survive on coins. Other bacteria such as E. coli, Salmonella species, and viruses, including human influenza virus (aka the flu), Norovirus, Rhinovirus, hepatitis A virus, and Rotavirus are transmitted through hand contact. And when we're speaking of money, coins, and credit/debit cards, hand contact is the only way to handle those items in physical stores and spaces.
The amount of bacteria carried by banknotes, specifically, also depends on the material of the bills and varies widely between countries. In the study, 88 percent of paper notes tested in Jeddah, Saudi Arabia, were contaminated with a variety of microorganisms (bacteria, virus, fungus) whereas 94 percent of U.S.-based bills carried bacterial contamination.
"Money serves as a fomite, an inanimate vehicle by which pathogens can be spread," said Charles Bailey, MD, medical director for infection prevention at Providence St. Joseph Health, in an interview with Insider.
What that means is if you touch money, then touch someone's hand, you can spread the germ to them. In a similar manner, if you touch dirty money, then come into contact with an elevator button, a doorknob, or the ATM screen, you could also spread the germ to those objects. The amount of time the germ survives on those surfaces is debatable.
With paper currency's frequent movement from person to person, the risk of transmission is pretty obvious. One study found that physical currency changes hands at least 55 times a year; other studies have revealed that banknotes could be covered in pretty much anything. One study in the 1990s in the U.S. found varying amounts of cocaine residue on bills.
So what to do?
Amid the novel coronavirus outbreak, the World Health Organization (WHO) said that as a precautionary measure, one must wash their hands thoroughly after touching money, especially before eating food. That is perhaps the only measure that can be taken by many people who don't have access to bank accounts, credit/debit cards, and e-wallets.
For those who do, there have been numerous contactless payment solutions going around for a while, and even more so since the start of the COVID-19 outbreak. This is particularly true in the UAE, when zooming in on the Arab region.
A 2019 Visa study revealed that consumers in the UAE highly consider (70 percent) mobile wallets such as Apple Pay, which is a completely contactless payment solution similar to Google Pay or Samsung Pay. There's even a localized version of that called eWallet, which was launched by Digital Financial Services, a joint venture between Etisalat and Noor Bank.
The digital payment service is regulated and licensed by the Central Bank of the UAE, offering customers flexible payment solutions through a mobile app. Customers don't need a bank account; they only need a valid Emirates ID and a working UAE mobile number to register for an eWallet account. Recently, customers of eWallet were given the green light to make money transfers to over 350,000 locations.
This is also probably why PayBy, a fintech company, officially launched its fast and secure mobile payment services in the UAE recently. With PayBy, consumers can use their smartphones to make contactless and cashless payments in physical stores. The payment solution also allows users to pay for deliveries on arrival, order goods and services online, transfer and receive money instantly, and even share cash gifts with family and friends — all with just the use of their smartphone.
A contactless society, in all shapes and forms, is probably going to become the new "life as we know it" very soon. It already has become so.