For many Indians, the best — and organic — fingertip moistener is their saliva. With the free and permanent finger-wet device, their tongue, they get an extraordinary talent of counting hundreds of banknotes within a short space of time.
But it is no more a noteworthy talent. At least, in the time of coronavirus, when saliva is not a moistener, but more or less a poisoner. And currency notes are the hotbeds of microbes, facilitating the transmission of pathogens.
The Confederation of All India Traders (CAIT), a body representing 50 million small traders, has raised concerns over the high possibility of the spread of coronavirus through currency notes. The people should be discouraged from using currency notes and make alternative transactions, including digital payments, instead, the CAIT has said.
Citing scientific studies to argue that currency notes carry microorganisms, the traders’ body wrote separate letters to Prime Minister Narendra Modi, Union Finance Minister Nirmala Sitharaman and Union Health Minister Dr Harshvardhan, seeking a “larger probe” to assess the chances of diseases spreading via currency notes.
Though there are several studies confirming that currency notes carry micro-organisms which cause infections, there is no conclusive scientific evidence to link the spread of the current strain of Coronavirus to contaminated currency notes.
However, the World Health Organization (WHO) has advised taking measures to maintain proper hygiene, post handling of notes. On its part, the Reserve Bank of India (RBI) has refrained from issuing any statement on avoiding the use of paper currency but advised people to extensively use digital payments options.
A report published in the Journal “Current Microbiology and Applied Sciences” in 2016 said 86.4% of the 120 currency notes tested at the Department of Microbiology, Tirunelveli Medical College in Tamil Nadu, were contaminated with disease causing pathogens such as Klebsiella Pneumoniae, E.Coli and Staphylococcus aureus.
The currency notes were collected from a variety of sources including doctors, banks, local markets, students and housewives. The notes collected from doctors were also found to be infected.
Another study published in the July 2016 issue of the International Journal of Pharma and Bio Science too had expressed concern over both bacterial and fungal contamination of currency notes on the basis of a study of 530 notes of all denominations and 300 coins of 5, 2 and 1 denominations collected from Srikakulum and Visakapatnam in Andhra Pradesh.
Yet another article published in the International Journal of Advanced Research in 2016 reveals that 58% of bank notes carried disease causing pathogens. Hundred notes of Rs 100, 50, 20 and 10 denominations collected in Davanagere, Karnataka, were checked for the study.
A scrutiny of 96 paper currency of various denominations, ranging from Rs 5 to Rs 500, and 48 coins, conducted at the departments of microbiology and pulmonary medicine, King George’s Medical University, Lucknow, showed that almost all the samples were contaminated with bacteria and fungus.
According to an article published in the Indian Journal of Medicine and Public Health in 2015, the currency notes of Rs 5 and Rs 10 were found to be most highly contaminated.
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“All these reports reaffirm what the earlier studies, conducted in different parts of the country for more than ten years have revealed- that currency notes are a source of infection and dangerous to health, more so because many of the pathogens on them are multi-drug resistant strains,” the CAIT said.
“Coronavirus is a deadly infectious disease which may spread by close contact of any person infected with it. Even if due precautions are taken, the cash usage cannot be avoided and as such it becomes one of the most easy carriers for spreading any virus. Therefore, immediate steps should be taken to check spreading of any virus through currency notes,” the CAIT said in its letter to the Finance Minister.
Repository of infections
The experts have warned that several diseases, including urinary and respiratory tract infections, skin infections and recurrent meningitis, are being transmitted through currency notes. They can also contribute to causing septicaemia and toxic shock syndrome.
“It is a known fact that currency notes do change hands very frequently and probabilities of its contamination is always high. It is also to be noted that in India most of the people while counting currency notes generally put fingers in mouth for easy counting of notes and people do not care much about hand sanitation which may lead spreading of any kind of virus,” the CAIT president M C Bhartia and secretary general Praveen Khandelwal said.
The trading community is the largest user of currency notes, prompting the CAIT to raise this issue.
Citing the examples of countries like UK, Australia and Canada which have switched over to polymer notes to reduce the risk of spreading infections through currency, the association said India should examine such an option and eventually move towards adoption of polymer currency.
“The usage of paper currency becomes a health hazard”, the CAIT said in its letter to the Prime Minister. The traders’ body cited the safety of polymer currency, mentioning that 13 countries have switched entirely to these notes while 15 more countries are in the line to do so.
SBI for polymer-based currency
The research desk of the State Bank of India, in its March 17 publication entitled Ecowrap”, came out in support of the polymer-based currency notes and cited the CAIT’s letter to buttress its argument.
The concerns about contaminated currencies have been raised in other countries too. The Peoples’ Bank of China has carried out disinfection of cash through ultraviolet light, high temperatures and quarantining it for 14 days.
In the United States, the reports said that some banks have asked the Federal Reserve and the Treasury to vouch for the safety of bank bills.
The WHO has said it is not certain how long coronavirus survives on surfaces. However, it quotes some studies to suggest that the virus may persist on surfaces for a few hours or up to several days. This may vary under different conditions including the type of surface, temperature or humidity of the environment.
In an advisory, the RBI said “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 digital payment modes from the convenience of their homes through online channels like mobile banking, internet banking and cards and avoid using cash which may require going to crowded places for sending money or paying bills.”