Dirty money: Covid-19 brings currency to the idea of a cashless society

All over the world we’re cashing out, given coins and notes’ unsanitary nature and cash’s dangerous anonymity, writes Jessica Brodie

19 July 2020 - 00:02 By Jessica Brodie
The bills in your wallet are a hospitable environment for microbes.
The bills in your wallet are a hospitable environment for microbes.
Image: 123RF/Iuri Gagarin

Cash could be the latest victim of the coronavirus. There is currently R75-billion in circulation in paper money in SA, with over six million micro-, small- and medium-sized businesses operating primarily in cash transactions. Historically in SA, cash is king.

Since the outbreak of Covid-19, there has been a massive increase in online payments in SA. That's because money is gross. The World Health Organisation has stated that while you should wash your hands thoroughly after handling money, it hasn't yet been proven if you can catch coronavirus from banknotes. Still, banknotes change hands hundreds — or even thousands — of times, so you're definitely exposed to many everyday germs when you handle them.

So many, in fact, that paper money can reportedly carry more germs than your household toilet. The bills in your wallet are a hospitable environment for microbes: viruses and bacteria can live on most surfaces for up to 48 hours, but paper money can reportedly transport a live flu virus for up to 17 days.

Then there is the drug residue; in the US, a study found that almost all bills in circulation test positive for cocaine. This is because bills are often rolled up as sniffing straws. When these notes re-enter the supply chain, the brushes and rollers in ATMs distribute the drug's residue throughout the rest of the cash supply. It seems while you can launder money, it's never going to be clean.

In these times of panic, irrespective of the grossness of the notes themselves, the entire practice of spending cash is changing. Our lives are different now. Whatever trajectory we were on before has altered. South Africans have radically acclimatised to a less cash-bound society.

The future of cash has become an ongoing debate, but it's mostly theoretical among economists. For the average person, it's a non-issue — we have access to a wide variety of forms of payment, so there's no real conflict. I suspect most of us like it that way. But there's no question there are forces at play that may ultimately result in a cashless society. These are emerging already.

Sweden is the most cashless society on Earth, with only 13% of people using cash on a weekly basis. Most people use credit or debit cards, even children. There are still coins in circulation, but youths in Sweden will reflect on their childhood pocket money metered out on the payment app Swish, rather than the jingle of coins in their actual pockets. The buses and trains haven't accepted cash for years. Sweden's national rail system, SJ, has even begun to allow customers to access the rail system using digital tickets stored on microchips in their hands. There is talk that these surgically inserted chips will soon have the functionality to make payment in shops and restaurants.

Irrespective of the grossness of the notes themselves, the entire practice of spending cash is changing

In SA, we're not quite there. I, for example, have only just started tapping my card. But there's been a significant amount of moving and shaking in the financial realm. Digital technologies are knitting together aspects of banking, telecommunications and retail, with more players contributing to the payment landscape than merely the major banks. The shift away from cash will likely focus on financial inclusion, rather than flashy microchips.

This is a drive towards reducing poverty and boosting prosperity through access to better financial products — better payments, savings, credit and insurance. Along with banking solutions, there are a host of homegrown heroes. Snapscan enables merchants to sign up and accept payments almost instantly. Clickatell allows companies like MTN and Absa to accept payments via WhatsApp. LayUp provides lay-by payments in a digital age. Mobicred provides small loans for purchases on platforms such as Takealot or the iStore, using your cellphone number to perform a credit check.

Yoco, the payment wunderkind, is a cheap credit card terminal that bypasses the need to set up a business account with a major bank. You simply purchase a device from them, and once you start accepting payments, they transfer the money to your existing account. Meanwhile, Howler takes the danger out of carrying cash at events. You can buy a ticket online, and top up a card or wristband with money to spend at the event, completely eliminating the need to carry cash when you are most likely to be at risk of losing it.

And while for some the move away from cash may be microbially based, there's a more pressing danger to cash and that is its anonymous nature. Cash is inherently dangerous. In businesses where large amounts of cash are handled there are increased security concerns, in order to protect it. Cash handling incurs costs and can result in lost tax revenue. The biggest danger with cash is that it powers the "shadow economy", where black market transactions and undeclared work pave the way for crime and corruption.

There's no way to predict the future, but what's certain is that there are changes afoot. When deciding how you want to spend in the future, consider the words of Henry David Thoreau: "Wealth is the ability to fully experience life." Let that guide your choices.