Coronavirus Has Chinese Banks Cleaning and Trying to Quarantine (or Destroy) Dirty Money

“Coronavirus Has Chinese Banks Cleaning and Trying to Quarantine (or Destroy) Dirty Money,” published in The National Interest on February 16, 2020

China’s widespread quarantine policy thanks to the coronavirus had been expanded from the city of Wuhan to a dozen other cities in Hubei province, to community quarantines for people returning from holiday, and now even inanimate objects must be quarantined. Paper currency, that is.

People’s Bank of China representatives said at a press conference on February 15 that currency deposited at banks must be disinfected with ultraviolet light and then held for a week or longer before being released back into the wilds of the economy. The Chinese central bank will provide new bills worth 600 billion yuan to banks. (Some of the currency will be destroyed.)

Those who work closely with cash are keenly aware of how filthy money is. “When I’m at work, I realize cash is the dirtiest thing in the world,” Wang Zeyaun, a bank teller in Hangzhou, says.

It’s true. A 2002 study of American $1 bills found bacteria on over 90 percent, and a Swiss study found that the flu virus can survive from between a few days and two weeks on francs. (Metal coins are not as dirty as fabric bills.) Richard W. Rahn, a senior fellow at the Cato Institute, hopes that paper currency will disappear.

In China, it is already on its way to extinction. According to eMarketer, a NYC-based online commerce research firm, China leads the world by far in mobile payment with 81 percent adoption by its smartphone users in 2020. Measured as a proportion of total population, China also leads the world, with 35 percent in 2019, according to Statista Digital Market Outlook.

Those who do not use smart phones, or, if they do, are less likely to use advanced features, are disproportionately the elderly. The elderly are also more likely to have compromised immune systems and less likely to survive serious illness. So many news articles in Chinese media point to their use of cash as an important reason to clean currency. During the Spring Festival period, the elders also customarily give cash in red packets to young children, who also are at greater risk from sickness.

“Some people who are older, they cannot use Alipay. For example, my mother, she tried, but she cannot learn to use Alipay,” Lareina Cui, a fashion sales representative in Shanghai, said.

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