At some point in the future, historians will no doubt discuss the pre- and post-coronavirus periods. Today, there are already many societal and economic assumptions that are being openly questioned as the dystopian nightmare plays out.

Endless GDP growth? The sanctity of markets? Sneezing? Shaking hands? Spectator sports? 5G? The trade in wild animals? The concepts of economic value and personal risk are being redefined before our eyes. New norms will take their place.

One of the most likely casualties of a coronavirus rethink is hard cash, the very lifeblood of commerce for centuries.

To offer a personal anecdote, your author happened to be entering a remote Utah National Park just as the dangers of coronavirus were starting to find traction in the U.S. in March. “I am officially able to take cash, but I’d rather not,” said the amiable but worried national park guard at the entrance. “Those corona germs stay on cash for days sir. We don’t like to touch greenbacks no more.”

She was not the only Middle American reticent about handling cash. As coronavirus has spread, what seemed like an overly cautious attitude in the second week of March looks stone-cold rational in early April.

Cash distancing

A million miles away from the lonely beauty of Utah’s desert landscapes, global cities such as London and New York are in lockdown in a desperate bid to limit Covid-19 deaths. Avoiding the dangers of cash has become a critical and accepted element of efforts to stop the spread of coronavirus for billions of people.

Across Europe and the U.S., thousands of cafes, supermarkets and newsagents have banned cash transactions. The New York Post reported that a taxi driver died of Covid-19 which it was suspected he caught from a cash fare. And, as early as February, China was disinfecting cash with ultraviolet and/or heat treatments in an effort to restrict the spread of coronavirus.

What is becoming clear as coronavirus continues its deadly spread is that the world’s trepidation about cash is entirely logical.

Dirty cash

That cash is covered in germs is nothing new. The U.S. Federal Reserve calculates that the lifespan of various dollar notes ranges from 4 to 15 years, while multiple studies have illustrated that paper bills carry bacteria and viruses and can spread disease.

Old, dirty and germ-ridden is not a good look at the best of times, never mind in the midst of a deadly pandemic.


The danger of cash when it comes to Covid-19 is not that the virus can penetrate the skin. It’s that once it is on the hands, it can easily lead to infection if it is then transferred to your mouth, nose or eyes – especially if you consider that in many cultures eating with bare hands is very much the norm. Cash itself might not kill, but it sure provides a helping hand.

Credit card payment terminals, too, can be a coronavirus hazard. Governments and experts have urged consumers to use non-contact digital payments wherever possible because the virus can remain on plastics and metals for days after being touched by someone infected.

Race to digital

There is no doubt that coronavirus is accelerating the shift to cashless shopping as fears that coins and notes spread infectious diseases encourages greater use of digital payments.

The head of the ‘Access to Cash’ campaign group admits that temporary shifts away from cash will likely find traction and represent a “dramatic shift to digital”. A pizzeria owner in the UK that now refuses to accept cash adds: “Once people get the idea that money can be a bit dirty and can be infectious, that idea will stick like cheese and they will avoid it.”

The former president of Bank of China is now urging China’s central bank to speed the release of its planned digital currency to reduce reliance on cash and credit cards and help prevent a resurgence of Covid-19.

As economic growth forecasts are downgraded almost daily, increasingly it seems that if the world suffers ONLY a recession this year that will be fortuitous. Amid the chaos, most expect things will get worse before they get better. When the worst is over, many elements of our old normality including the perception of personal and commercial risk will be reimagined.

After so many thousands of deaths, the fear of handling cash – once the very essence of commerce and societal interaction – is unlikely to dissipate.