Mumbai: A recent letter written by the Confederation of All India Traders (CAIT) to finance minister Nirmala Sitharaman about the possible spread of coronavirus through currency notes has revived concerns around handling of cash during an epidemic. Apart from writing to the finance minister, CAIT, a body representing 50 million small traders, also wrote to Prime Minister Narendra Modi on March 11, urging him to drive India towards the adoption of polymer currency.

While there is no conclusive scientific study that links the spread of the current strain of Coronavirus to contaminated currency notes, the World Health Organization (WHO) has advised taking measures to maintain proper hygiene post handling of notes. Even India's central bank, the Reserve Bank Of India (RBI), has refrained from issuing any statement on avoiding the use of paper currency.

There were 108,759 million banknotes in circulation as of March 31, 2019, according to an RBI report released on August 29, 2019. Additionally, 120,324 million coins are in circulation.

"...usage of paper currency which is most dreaded carrier for different viruses and infections due to rapid change of hands between unknown people and thus becomes a health hazard", CAIT said in its letter to Prime Minister Narendra Modi. The body cited the safety of polymer currency, mentioning 13 countries who have switched entirely to these notes, giving up paper variants, and more than 15 countries in the line to do so.

The research desk of the State Bank of India, in its March 17 publication entitled 'Ecowrap', cited the CAIT's letter to support the adoption of polymer-based currency, and went a step further to cite various studies conducted in India showing the previous instances where Indian banknotes were found to contain pathogens.

  1. A 2015 study conducted by King George's Medical University, Lucknow, that showed that almost an entire sample of 96 banknotes and 48 coins were contaminated with virus, fungus and bacteria.
  2. A 2016 study conducted in Tamil Nadu that showed 86.4% of 120 banknotes collected from doctors, banks, markets, butchers, students and housewives had various disease-causing pathogens.
  3. Another 2016 from Karnataka study showed 58 of 100 notes of Rs 100, 50, 20 & 10 were contaminated.

Global concerns

These concerns about contaminated currencies have been reflected in other countries too. The Peoples' Bank of China has undertaken the disinfection of cash through ultraviolet light, high temperatures, quarantining it for 14 days and the destruction of existing cash. In the United States, some banks have reportedly asked the Federal Reserve and the Treasury to vouch for the safety of bank bills.

COVID-19 is the latest in the coronavirus family, and the WHO has stated that it is not certain how long COVID-19 survives on surfaces. However, it goes on to state, "Studies suggest that coronaviruses (including preliminary information on the COVID-19 virus) may persist on surfaces for a few hours or up to several days. This may vary under different conditions (e.g. type of surface, temperature or humidity of the environment)."

Another study conducted by two German universities and published in the Journal of Hospital Infections pegs the following time-frames for the persistence of viruses from the coronavirus family (not COVID-19) on various surfaces.

How Long Do Coronaviruses Persist On Different Surfaces
Surfaces Length
Aluminium 2 - 8 hours
Wood 4 days
Plastic 2 - 5 days
Metal 5 days
Paper 3 hours to 5 days
Ceramic 5 days
Steel 2 days to more than 28 days
Glass 4 - 5 days
Surgical glove (latex) 8 hours

Source: Journal of Hospital Infections

Note: Viruses under the coronavirus family may have different persistencies depending on their strain and temperature conditions. These data are not for COVID-19.

A nudge towards digital payments?

While institutions around the world have stopped short of recommending the avoidance of currency, they have advised caution.

"Yes it's possible and it's a good question," the WHO told the Telegraph on March 2, "We know that money changes hands frequently and can pick up all sorts of bacteria and viruses and things like that. We would advise people to wash their hands after handling banknotes, and avoid touching their face. When possible it's a good idea to use contactless payments."

The WHO later clarified that it was not propagating contactless payments as a way to stop COVID-19's transmission, the fact-checking website Snopes later reported, adding that they had not issued banknote related guidelines. The reporter reached out to the WHO for a comment, and this story will be updated on receiving one.

Back home, the RBI issued an advisory on March 16 alerting citizens to various forms of digital payments, and how they are relevant in the current scenario. A senior RBI official who did not wish to be named told this reporter, "The jury is still out there on the spread of the virus through notes. Therefore, we are not saying do not use cash, we are just making the alternatives known so people can avoid crowded and public places."

"In the context of the efforts to limit the fallout of the coronavirus pandemic by avoiding social contact and visit to public places, public can use these modes of digital payment from the convenience of their homes through online channels like mobile banking, internet banking, cards, etc. and avoid using cash which may require going to crowded places for sending money or paying bills," the advisory said.

In India, 258 people had been reported to have contracted COVID19 and four to have lost their lives to the illness, as of March 21, as per's tracker, Coronavirus Monitor.

Globally, more than 270,000 people have been affected, and more than 11,000 have died, as per Johns Hopkins University's Coronavirus Resource Center.

Since the disease spreads by contact, international and regional health organisations have recommended measures including social distancing and self-quarantining to help inhibit its spread.

A version of this story was first published here on BOOM.

(Kudrati is a fact-checker with BOOM.)

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