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story.lead_photo.caption A man uses bank notes to pay for his purchases earlier this month in Basra, Iraq. The pandemic has reawakened debate about the continued viability of coins and paper money. (AP/Nabil al-Jurani)

BEIRUT -- In troubled times, people have been known to hoard currency at home -- a financial security blanket against deep uncertainty. But in this crisis, things are different. This time cash itself, passed from hand to hand across neighborhoods, cities and societies just like the coronavirus, is a source of suspicion rather than reassurance.

No longer a thing to be shoved mindlessly into a pocket, tucked into a worn wallet or thrown casually on a kitchen counter, money's status has changed during the virus era. The pandemic has also reawakened debate about the continued viability of what has been the physical lifeblood of global economies: paper money and coins.

From the supermarkets of the United States and Japan to the shantytowns of Africa to the gas stations of Tehran, a growing number of businesses and individuals worldwide have stopped using banknotes in fear that physical currency, handled by tens of thousands of people over their useful life, could be a vector for the spreading the coronavirus.

Public officials and health experts have said that the risk of transferring the virus from person to person through the use of money is minimal. That hasn't stopped businesses from refusing to accept currency, and some countries from urging citizens to stop using banknotes altogether.

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STERILIZING STRATEGIES

In the coronavirus era, a thousand calculations are made before cash is handled -- mostly with gloved hands. Some leave the money laid out on surfaces for days, for the virus to die. Others disinfect banknotes with spray. Some even microwave them in the belief it kills the virus. In China, banks are now required to sterilize cash with ultraviolet light or heat, then store notes for at least a week before they are given to customers.

"In many areas, cash was already beginning to disappear due the increased risk of robbery, the ease of internet ordering, and the ubiquity of cellphones," says Zachary Cohle, an assistant professor at the department of economics at Quinnipiac University in Connecticut.

"Cash," Cohle says, "now carries an extra stigma."

Sweden, Finland, Norway, Canada and others have slowly phased out cash to the point where using it in large amounts seems suspicious. The United Kingdom and Australia are among countries expected to become cashless societies. And in China, use of cash by consumers has plunged as smartphone-based payment services rose in popularity over the past decade.

But for much of the rest of the world, letting go of cash is difficult, if not impossible.

Humans have a centuries-old emotional relationship with hard money that is difficult to erase.

"Currency represents value that we can hold in our hands. Cash provides a way for us to translate a day's work into something tangible and easily traded," Cohle said. "We may not know what goods we will need in the future. However, holding money allows for us to feel as though we can buy whatever goods we will need."

"I always pay with cash -- as a matter of principle!" Ingel Strobl, a 76-year-old pensioner, said while shopping at a bakery in central Vienna. "I know they want to abolish cash. But I don't want that we lose our right to our own money. You know what I mean, anyway! I stick to cash -- corona or not."'

Since the virus outbreak, however, shops that have remained open, like grocery stores, have posted signs encouraging people to pay with cards. According to Germany's central bank, the Bundesbank, 43% of people have changed their payment behavior in the past few weeks; now, a large percentage are likely to make contactless payments with a card.

CASH IN A CRISIS

In crisis-hit countries and parts of the world gripped by conflict or inflation, cash is still carried in thick wads for simple shopping expeditions.

In Lebanon, as the economic situation deteriorated late last year and the fear of banks collapsing mounted, many people began saving cash in their homes. The sale of home safes surged. An estimated $3 billion was withdrawn and stashed at home, according to the governor of the country's Central Bank.

In Iran, one of the world's worst coronavirus hot spots, there are no international bank cards, like Visa or Mastercard, because of U.S. sanctions. Many were surprised at the new banners that appeared at some gas stations in Tehran: "Service is only for those who will pay by debit cards."

Dorothy Harpool, director of student and community initiatives and lecturer at Wichita State University's W. Frank Barton School of Business, predicted the pandemic would lead some consumers to rethink their use of cash. But going completely cashless, she says, is a long way off.

"Until everyone and every country has reliable access to the internet, I do not believe the pandemic will singularly change past practices," Harpool said. In particular, cash transactions are likely to remain for businesses operating under the radar of government and other regulatory bodies.

Information for this article was contributed by David Rising, Philipp Jenne, Yuri Kageyama, Jorge Rueda, Scott Smith, Krista Larson and Amir Vahdat of The Associated Press.

Business on 05/21/2020

Print Headline: Pandemic casts suspicion on cash

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