Why Kenya is banking on cashless transactions to help stop coronavirus

Can the new coronavirus be spread on banknotes? The question came on Africa Check’s Kenya WhatsApp fact-checking line

“So, there’s a new claim that currency notes actually are possible conduits of the virus. How true is this?”

The claim is also circulating on social networks. One Facebook user urges people to “use bitcoin instead” as the coronavirus “can be spread through passing banknotes”.

Other people on Facebook are asking if banknotes should be abandoned altogether, or at least sanitised.

In a national address about coronavirus on 15 March 2020, president Uhuru Kenyatta urged Kenyans not to use cash.

“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,” he said. 

In response, Safaricom, Kenya’s largest telecoms firm, waived transaction fees for lower amounts on its M-Pesa mobile money service. Kenya’s central bank also issued guidelines aimed at increasing the use of mobile money “to reduce the risk of transmission of Covid-19”.

Covid-19 is the infectious disease caused by the most recently discovered coronavirus. 

Coronavirus survives on surfaces

But do banknotes spread the virus?

Dr Abdhalah Ziraba is a research scientist, medical doctor and epidemiologist at the African Population and Health Research Centre in Nairobi. 

He told Africa Check that while viruses cannot reproduce or grow outside human or animal bodies, they can survive outside for “variable periods of time”. This depends on the virus and the surface it’s on.

Ziraba said the Covid-19 virus can survive in droplets of liquid from coughing and sneezing, on surfaces such as door handles and lift buttons, and on our hands. 

“Based on this, it is very plausible that banknotes handled by an infected person can get contaminated and become a potential source of infection for the persons receiving such a banknote.”

Ziraba said the virus can survive outside the body “anywhere between one hour to several days, depending on the ambient temperatures and nature of the surface on which it is deposited”. 

“In a way, limiting the use of physical money is one of the several actions in the response arsenal that might contribute to interrupting the transmission, the same way limiting handshakes, and handwashing is beneficial.”

Wash your hands after handling cash

Ziraba added: “The cumulative benefit of these little actions is to reduce the risk, at the population level, of new infections coming up in one big swoop in a short time. If this happened the potential to overwhelm the healthcare system is huge.”

Media in the UK have also reported that the virus could spread on banknotes, attributing this to the World Health Organization.  

The WHO told Full Fact, our UK-based fact-checking partner, that while the virus could be spread on cash, it does not have an official warning about banknotes.

Full Fact says the health agency does advise people to wash their hands after handling money, especially if working with or eating food. – Alphonce Shiundu

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