The US Federal Reserve has USD$1.75 trillion of notes in circulation. And each one of those notes can reportedly carry more germs than a household toilet. You wouldn’t wipe your hands on a toilet; indeed you wash your hands after going near it. You put disinfectant down it. You flush it. You put toilet blocks down it. And what do we do with bank notes? Hand them around like hand sanitizer at a music festival, with the direct opposite effect.

Money is disgusting. We spend so much time trying to avoid germs and viruses and yet we freely exchange bits of paper that carry them around. We stick them in pockets, wallets, under mattresses and, yes, for those inclined to certain types of narcotics, they put them up the nose.

The Chinese government finally cottoned on to that this week as it continued its fight against the spread of the coronavirus. While the boffins attempt to understand the virus, their thinking is that it can be transmitted by surfaces, so what better home than a surface that may change hands several times a day? Chinese banks must now disinfect their cash with UV and high temperatures, before storing it for 7-14 days prior to releasing it. You can insert your own money laundering joke here.

According to Time magazine, money is not only capable of transmitting germs, it’s actually better than a normal surface. One story suggested it can carry a live flu virus for up to 17 days. That same story also mentioned the presence of fecal matter… but let’s just leave that one for now.

Talkin’ about an evolution

The history of money, or currency, is fascinating. Back in the day shells were used as a means of exchange. Tally sticks were used for transactions. Gradually the concept of currency evolved into coins and the notes. It’s easy to see why. Cheques became popular and still were until the 1990s. But as early as 1918 our friends at the Federal Reserve, with its USD$1.75 trillion of cash, started moving currency by telegraph. A transaction with no physical interaction. Not long after, the notion of credit cards was born.

But only in the last 25 years has the idea of contactless payments for individuals really taken off. (We have issues with the term ‘contactless’ when we’re also asked to ‘tap and go’ as that seems oxymoronic, but in terms of our current preoccupation the ‘contact’ part is important.) A form of transaction where you don’t have to touch anything, never mind touching something that’s had many previous dirty owners. That makes sense from a technical and a health point of view.

All of which brings us to our main point. There are many benefits for a cashless society. Many of those propagated by digital money-moving companies revolve around technology, speed, cost and transparency.

But never more than this week, when laundering cash has become a way of protecting people instead of protecting criminals, is it more apt to make the point that digital currency is hygienic. Sending money via a phone app or your laptop or a card, or pretty much anything that isn’t a bit of paper, has to be a better way to keep everyone healthy.

The Adventures of Stevie V might have sang about ‘Dirty cash’ in 1989, but while they suggested that Money Talks, they’d have been better off suggesting that Money transfers a whole host of unhygienic micro-organisms that could cause you to get sick.

It wouldn’t have resonated, but it’s more accurate.