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The World’s Mobile Money Capital Urges Cashless Transactions Amid COVID-19 Spread, But Will This Help?


March 16, 2020

Three days ago, Kenya confirmed its first coronavirus (COVID-19) case. The infected person was a 27-year-old Kenyan national who was studying abroad.   

Then barely two days later, President Uhuru Kenyatta confirmed two more cases of the deadly coronavirus in Kenya.

Addressing the nation on Sunday, President Kenyatta the two new cases were discovered following tests on 27 people who came into close contact with the country’s index patient.

As part of efforts aimed at containing the spread of the pandemic which has already caused over 6500 deaths and more than 170,000 infections globally, President Kenyatta announced a number of measures, including one that encouraged the adoption of cashless transactions to prevent the risk of transmission through physical handling of money.

“In order to avoid the risk of transmission through physical handling of money, we encourage the use of cashless transactions such as mobile money and credit cards,” a part of the President’s address reads.

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Then, he went on to urge industry players to do their bit. “We appeal to mobile operators and banks to take into consideration the situation, and reduce the cost of transactions during this period.”

Now, in a country that is often described as the mobile money capital of the world, this is hardly a big shift. Indeed, Kenya’s mobile money transactions topped USD 27 Bn as of mid-2019, mostly driven by the well-known M-PESA.

Official statistics showed the sum transferred using mobile money and payment services topped KES 2.87 Tn (USD 27.7 Bn) in the period to end-August, up 10.3 percent during the same period of 2018.

Additionally, the central bank’s figures showed there were 222,479 agents at the close of the recent period, up from 202,627 at end-August 2018. Also, mobile money accounts increased from 43.6 million at end-August 2018 to 54.8 million, with the number of transactions rising from 149.5 million to 151.8 million.

Obviously, to ask people to adopt cashless transactions isn’t exactly game-changing or revolutionary, at least, not in Kenya. And neither will the coronavirus scourge trigger some sort of spike that will see Kenyans use mobile money any more than they already are.

However, as the world struggles to understand and contain the novel coronavirus, it is important that fact is separated from fiction in these times. And one way to do that is to address the “myth” or “truth” in paper money being a vector for the disease and how those who handle cash are in danger.

Myth or Truth: Is Cash-Handling A Coronavirus Risk?

Cash is notoriously covered in germs; studies suggest that paper bills can contain bacteria and viruses, plus lead to the spread of disease. The lifespan of various bills ranges from four to 15 years, according to the, meaning cash has a lot of time to accumulate germs.

As many people, including Kenyans, desperately shop for supplies amid the coronavirus outbreak — in a manner not dissimilar to panic buying — concerns have circulated about whether handling cash could contribute to the spread of the virus. Some outlets reported that you should use contactless payment methods instead of paper money.

In China where there are more than 80,500 cases of COVID-19, for example, banks began disinfecting cash with ultraviolet or heat treatments in February to prevent the further spread of the virus. Just to add; China does have a very vibrant mobile payment system too.

So, really, what’s the deal with COVID-19 and Cash, and should people be cautious?

Well, not any more cautious than they already are with hand hygiene. Here’s the thing; there’s no evidence that cash is a vector. At least, not yet. While there is some laboratory evidence, there is just no field evidence of an actual person contracting COVID-19 via paper currency.

Despite reports that the World Health Organization was pushing people to use contactless payments, a spokesperson for the WHO told CNBC Make It earlier this month that it has not issued any warnings or statements about the use of cash. 

Instead, the WHO reiterated that people should wash their hands, including after handling money, especially if they’re eating or touching food.

For starters, COVID-19 doesn’t spread by penetrating the skin on your hands, Michael Knight, assistant professor of medicine at the George Washington School of Medicine and Health Sciences, told CNBC Make It.

“Getting coronavirus, or other respiratory viruses like influenza, on your hands only leads to infection when it is transferred from your hand to places like your mouth, nose or eyes,” he said.

And guess what, even if individuals stick to contactless payments but don’t wash their hands after touching their phone, credit card or a payment terminal, they are just as susceptible to potential infection as cash users.

That said, the best measure one can take to prevent the spread of germs is hand-washing. If one’s job requires that they handle money (or any other potentially contaminated surface), it is important to be diligent and deliberate about hand-washing and no face-touching.

For those who wear disposable gloves, it’s still a good idea to change them and wash hands between touching money and preparing food. Else, they would just be spreading germs with the gloves instead of their hands.

So, it’s not really about handling cash or going cashless. The germs are everywhere, it really just comes down to hand hygiene.

On Sunday, several African governments including Kenya, Ghana, and South Africa, canceled flights and imposed strict entry and quarantine requirements to contain the spread of the new coronavirus, which now has a foothold in at least 26 countries on the continent as cases keep rising.

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