By Dr Prashantha Naik
Jun 2: Mr X working in a multinational company received a call from the head office. As per the intimation, he left for Mumbai to attend a business meeting. After the meeting, he had enough time to catch the return train and, therefore, wandered around the Mumbai city. Meanwhile, he drank tender coconut water from a roadside vendor. He gave the vendor a currency note of Rs 500 and received the change. While returning the change, the vendor counted the currency notes wetting his finger with his saliva, which is his habit as many people do it. Unfortunately, the vendor was already infected with coronavirus that he himself was unaware of. Mr X travelled back to his hometown without having any clue that he was carrying a dangerous virus in his pocket. Before reaching his home, on the way, he used those contaminated currency notes to pay the taxi fare, hotel bills, a fruit vendor, and also gave few coins to a beggar. The result was catastrophic! As the currency notes and coins were exchanged from one hand to other and one place to other, the virus also got transmitted, ultimately many people got infected and started showing symptoms of COVID-19.
This is just an imaginary incident. But a similar type of incident can occur anywhere else. Worldwide, the number of coronavirus infected cases are increasing day by day at an alarming rate. In India, as of May 19, 2020, it had reached 1,03,886+ positive cases with a death toll of 3,212. Despite various precautionary measures, including imposing lockdown, wearing of face masks, maintaining social distance, use of gloves, washing hands and legs with soap and disinfecting hands with sanitizer, as per the guidelines of WHO and Governments’ initiatives, the spread of coronavirus could not be controlled. A complete picture of how the virus silently spreads among the mass is still not available.
A serious concern is that currency notes might be the culprit behind fast-spreading of the virus through the surface-human transmission. The concern is mainly for two reasons; primarily, currency notes are the ones that rapidly circulate among unknown people. As per data from the Central Bank, 10,875 crores of currency notes and 12,000 crore coins were in public circulation in India, as of March 31, 2019. During the circulation, at any point of time, the currency notes might be contaminated with the pathogen from an infected person. Unhygienic handling of currency notes by some people makes the situation even worse. Secondly, the Centre for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) based on various scientific studies reported that SARS-CoV-2 (the virus that causes COVID-19) can survive 3 hours to 4 days on papers. The currency notes made of papers and transfer from person to person have higher chances of contamination. Not only paper currency but also coins, so much so, it is more dangerous than currency notes since the virus can survive on metal surfaces for around 5 days (these figures vary depending on the climatic conditions and geographic regions, the virus survives for a shorter duration in the places with higher temperature and humidity, as published in the Journal of Hospital Infections).
In fact, before the outbreak of COVID-19, many studies have proven that currency notes have a high chance of getting contaminated with pathogens. Scientists from the Institute of Genomics and Integrative Biology, New Delhi conducted a study in 2015 and found that currency notes and coins collected from public places were contaminated with as many as 78 viral, bacterial and fungal pathogens, and some of them with multi-antibiotic resistant genes in their genomes. In 2016, a team of researchers from Tirunelveli Medical College in Tamil Nadu, conducted a study wherein currency notes collected from different people including bus conductors, doctors, butchers, students, housewives, fish vendors and vegetable sellers from local markets, in Vellore city, Tamil Nadu, were subjected to analysis of microbial contamination. As published in the International Journal of Current Microbiology and Applied Sciences, the study revealed that the tested currency notes were highly contaminated with bacteria, including certain pathogenic species. A similar kind of research by King George’s Medical University, Lucknow in 2015, also demonstrated that currency notes and coins were soiled with various strains of viruses, fungi, and bacteria. Despite no literature is available for a scientific study analyzing the currency notes for the possibility of SARS-CoV-2 contamination, the risk of spreading coronavirus through currency notes cannot be overruled.
In view of risk factors, the Confederation of All India Traders (CAIR), the nodal body for the development of trade and commerce in India, has recently appealed to the Union government to investigate the possible risk of spreading of COVID-19 through currency notes. China, the country from where the outbreak of novel coronavirus emerged was somehow successful in significantly reducing the mass spread of the disease. One of the important steps taken was focusing on the currency notes. The People's Bank of China took action disinfecting currency notes by exposing to ultraviolet rays or high temperatures, quarantining the cash for 14 days, and destructing contaminated cash. Likewise, different countries have adopted their own ways of sterilizing the currency notes; the Central Bank of Hungary adopted heating of currency notes at 170ºC followed by quarantining them for 14 days. In Korea, currency notes coming out of circulation are superheated to 150ºC before they are released back to the economy. But sterilizing the currency notes collected from across the country is not feasible as it demands plenty of infrastructures, and is a costly affair in the present situation. Some of the countries have switched over to polymer currency to avoid the risk of transmission of the virus through money. Compared to paper currency, polymer currency is considered much safer as it harbours fewer pathogens. Paper currency composed of cotton substrate absorbs more moisture allowing faster contamination with bacteria and other pathogens than their polymer counterpart. A research team of State Bank of India (SBI) suggested the Union government about the possibility of adopting polymer currency notes in India. However, for developing countries like India, shifting to polymer currency in a short span of time is not economically feasible, that too in the current scenario. Then, what is the alternative to avoid the risk of transmission of SARS-CoV-2 through currency notes?
Simple! The digital transaction, nothing but electronic money transfer, which is also known by other names like online payment, electronic payment and digital currency. Financial transaction is part and parcel of our day-to-day life, whether it may be shopping for groceries, vegetables, medicines, utility bill payments, and payment in the restaurant, school fee, parking charge, booking movies, events or travel tickets, and so on. For the last ten years, many people in India, particularly in towns and cities have well adapted to digital transactions, i.e. to make and receive payments. But for laymen, it may sound like highly advanced technology and its operation is not an easy task. Yes, it is an advanced version of information technology (software) but it has been programmed in such a way that a user can easily operate it for financial transactions.
Today, the mobile phone has become an integral part of our life, and now the majority of people have smartphones. Using a smartphone installed with one or the other apps for electronic money transfer, one can make the payment even for the purchase of a ten-rupee item. A mobile application for electronic money transfer is called e-Wallet. The cashless transaction became so popular in recent years that as per the 2018 eMarketer statistical data shows 73.9 million people across India use mobile e-Wallets. It is appreciated that many shops and vendors have upgraded their business by offering online payment services to customers. It is in the hand of the general public to make use of the facility to avoid the risk of getting infected and spread the dangerous virus. The World Health Organization (WHO) has already advised the people worldwide that it is better switch over to digital payments since soiled currency notes might pose a risk of spreading the virus.
Still, many people may be having doubts about how safe it is to do the online payment? There is no need to worry much about the safety of money in digital transactions. Of course, cyber security is the main challenge for stakeholders of the digital payment system. From this standpoint, the Reserve Bank of India (RBI) has brought out some guidelines as security and risk mitigation measures for online financial transactions. All digital payment is password protected or functions based on QR (Quick Response Code) code and OTPs (one-time password) generated by service providers. As a security feature, both password and OTPs are encrypted (the entered information is converted into a code that cannot be decoded) to prevent unauthorized access. The only thing, one should be careful that password and OTP should not be shared with strangers. More importantly, one should be very cautious not to fall into the trap of hackers and revealing the password or OTP. If this awareness and alertness is taken care of, digital payment is much easier, reliable, faster and secured.
Worldwide, there are hundreds of mobile applications (Apps) for secured online money transfer, developed by various E-commerce firms. The popular ones include, Paytm, MobiKwik, PhonePe, FreeCharge, Airtel Money, BHIM, Ola Money, PayPal India, ePaisa, Google Pay and Amazon Pay. All these payment systems are licensed by the Reserve Bank of India and provide instant real-time payment services adhering to the rules and guidelines of the governing body. In addition, many nationalized and private sector banks have also developed mobile apps (digibank) to provide digital banking services to customers; some of them include, Yono by SBI, Corp e-Purse by Corporation Bank, PayZapp by HDFC Bank and ICICI Pocket. Many of these mobile apps (e-Wallets and digibanks) provide not only free money transfer service but also competitively give attractive offers to users like cashback, discount, gift vouchers, credit points and so on. Digital payment also called online payment indicates that it requires internet accessibility. However, offline, that is payment can be made even without the internet or in the absence of network accessibility. For instance, Paytm has recently launched Tap Card, with which one can make the payment offline at merchant outlets.
People who are interested only in swadeshi products can opt Paytm, BHIM, PhonePe, MobiKwik or Airtel money, all of these are Indian e-commerce payment systems. Some individuals may express difficulty to use digital transactions with a reason that for all these mobile-based money transfer systems, one should know English banking words like, pay, payee, payer, credit, debit, etc. For such people, there are some apps that have been developed in regional languages. The android Paytm and PhonePe apps are available in 10 regional languages of India, including Kannada.
Nowadays, when kids are able to operate mobile phones like experts to play games or watch videos without being taught anything, why cannot we learn the digital payment? Most of the electronic money transfer applications are user-friendly. One can do self-learning with the help of the user manual or get trained from a friend or relative well versed with electronic money transfer. Many YouTube channels are available that teach step by step on how to operate e-Wallet, one can also google and learn. Once learned, it is as easy as operating a calculator. Online payment has many other advantages. There is no need to stand in a queue waiting for the turn to make the payment in a bank, electricity bill, EMI, and water bill, buying a movie ticket, booking train or bus tickets, and so on. Sitting at home or office, all payments can be made at fingertips. Since it is an online system, there is no distance limit, one can make the payment within, across and outside the country within a minute or two.
How about ATM/debit/credit cards that are also modes of a digital transaction? Are they safe as far as the transmission of pathogens is concerned? Certainly, cards are much safer than cash transactions as there is no exchange in many hands. It is, however, not completely risk-free. All these cards are made up of plastic and it has been proven that the novel coronavirus can survive on plastic surfaces for about 2 to 5 days. Therefore, there is a possibility of surface contamination while using cards in the markets, while withdrawing money from the ATMs and while given for swiping. Nevertheless, with the help of debit and credit cards, one can make the payment using a mobile phone or laptop with an internet connection.
Net-banking is also one of the options, by which one can operate his or her own account for many financial transactions by making use of Smartphone or laptop or desktop with the help of Wi-Fi or internet connection. Whether it is cash payment or online money transfer, the value depends on the number. For instance, the number 2,000, whether it is on the currency note or entered during online transfer, the value is one and the same. What is required is that amount must be there in the savings or current account in the bank or e-Wallet, rather than keeping the money in the traditional wallets and purses or shirt and pant pockets. e-Wallet, as the name indicates, serves as a wallet wherein the amount can be transferred electronically from a payee or received from a payer, accordingly, the balance amount remains in the wallet.
When an invisible dangerous pathogen is existing in front of us that might infect anyone at any moment by one means or the other without our knowledge, there should be no compromise in avoiding risk. One of the potential risk factors for infection and mass spreading of the virus is our financial transactions through currency notes. Therefore, to be on the safe side, it is better to adopt and adapt to digital payment system. According to a review published by Economic Times Government.com, on its website on April 16, 2020, during the lockdown period for three weeks, over 42 percent of Indians have shifted to online payment mode using e-Wallets as compared to the pre-lockdown period. Those who are yet to make up their minds, this is the right time to switch over from traditional cash payment practice to digital money transfer mode. There was a time, people unable to read or write were called illiterate. Today, in the modern era, one who does not know the basics of using information technology is considered illiterate. So, let us be educated enough to use the smartphones not only for digital transactions but also to safeguard ourselves against the possible infection of coronavirus through currency notes.
Finally, having said that digital transactions through smartphones is safer than currency notes and debit or credit cards, it does not mean that there is no risk at all. It is always safe to disinfect the hands with soap or sanitizer each time we use mobile phones in public places.
When an infected person sneezes, coughs or talks, releases saliva droplets which makes it vulnerable to the person in a close proximity to contract SARS-CoV-2. This is a direct way infection and that is the reason, wearing of face masks and maintaining the social distance (minimum 1 meter) in public places are made mandatory. There is another way of the potential risk of infection, i.e. surface-human transmission. Touching a contaminated object or surface and subsequently touching nose, mouth, or eyes leads to easy entry of the virus into the body. That is why, it has been repeatedly warned to frequent wash the hands with soap or disinfect with sanitizer, and avoid touching the nose, mouth and eyes frequently.
A very interesting incident occurred recently near BudhVihar, New Delhi. A general tendency is to immediately pick currency note lying on the road side. But a bunch of Rs 2,000 currency notes scattered on the road for hours together yet no single person came forward to pick them up. It is all due to the fear of coronavirus. The police investigation revealed that those currency notes were of a person who dropped from his pocket while coming out from an ATM after withdrawing the cash. Similar such kinds of incidence occurred in some other parts of the country after the outbreak of COVID-19, and in every case, people did not dare to pick the notes.
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Dr Prashantha Naik, born and bought up in Byndoor, is currently serving as professor and chairman in the department of Biosciences, Mangalore University. He has been publishing Kannada and English articles to create awareness about environmental issues and other aspects for the past 20 years. You can reach him at: email@example.com.