Since the Great Bitcoin Crash of 2018, it’s been harder and harder to make the case for fully digital currency as an alternative to central banking. But for some Bitcoin traders and enthusiasts, the recent coronavirus outbreak has allowed them to aggressively stump for cryptocurrency once more. Their argument is pretty simple: You’re more likely to catch a deadly virus if you use paper cash to buy your coffee.
“I only use new cash notes when I absolutely have to pay for something,” says Martin Hayes, a London-based Bitcoin trader and an administrator of the Bitcoin U.K. Facebook group. Hayes tells me that he withdraws around $200 a month directly from his bank. He insists that the bills are clean, and to keep them that way, he immediately places them in a Ziploc bag. “There have been times when I’ve paid for something in cash and I’ve been offered change, and I’ve simply refused it,” he continues. “I’ve probably lost a lot of money doing that. But I just don’t know where other people’s hands have been, and whether they wash them regularly.”
Compared to other Bitcoin traders, Hayes’ position is pretty moderate. “I pay for everything I can with cryptocurrency,” says Bill (a pseudonym), whose full-time job is as a stay-at-home cryptocurrency trader in Seattle. “I only have one bank card, and I try not to use that,” because, he believes, the card’s plastic can pick up infectious bacteria in ATMs and card readers. “If I can, I’ll pay for everything on a smartphone,” he explains — a phone, by the way, that he constantly cleans with disinfectant.
While extreme, Bill and Hayes aren’t exactly wrong. Advocates of a “Cashless Society” have often argued that the existence of coins and banknotes doesn’t only present a problem with financial transparency, they’re also a public health issue. In 2002, researchers from the U.S. Air Force found that 94 percent of dollar bills were harboring bacteria, and in 2018, researchers at London Metropolitan University discovered 19 different kinds of “super bacteria” festering on British paper notes and coins, including Listeria and MRSA. Other studies, including a 2017 report published in the scientific journal PLOS ONE, have outlined how bacteria that live in the microfibers of cash can settle in the fabric of wallets, too.
Public health organizations are quick to point out that just because microbes and bacteria exist in cash circulation, doesn’t necessarily mean that they’re dirty. “Organisms also grow better in certain specific environments. Just being on a surface doesn’t give it everything it needs,” Emily Martin, assistant professor of epidemiology at the University of Michigan School of Public Health, explained to Time in 2017.
Meanwhile, Paul Matewele, a professor of microbiology and immunology at London Metropolitan University, emphasizes that for the most part, these microbes and bacteria are common parts of our ecosystem, particularly if you live in a busy town or city. “The people who are most at risk are those with compromised immune systems” he tells me, adding that the broader issue should actually be about the distribution and use of antibiotics, which can make some bacteria more life-threatening and harder to control in the long-term, particularly for those in vulnerable places like hospitals. There, he explains, “You could unknowingly transfer bacteria off your cash that’s resistant to antibiotics.”
He’s not sure, though, the answer is going completely cashless or to adopt digital currency instead, especially because “it’s more likely you’ll get sick from riding a bus than exchanging cash.” He thinks a better solution might be to replace old bank notes with newer ones before the microfibers in the notes become weaker and are able to host more kinds of bacteria.
Further, as Wired notes, a fully cashless society tends to only benefit the wealthy and upper-middle class. For those without access to smartphones — and in particular, the homeless — even a decline in the number of people with spare change has a detrimental impact on their physical health and wellbeing, a factor that led to New York City passing a bill that prohibited stores and restaurants from not accepting cash earlier this month.
Not that it’ll ever convince guys like Hayes or Bill. On Friday, in fact, Hayes sent me a video of a bank in Sichuan, China, sterilizing bank notes prior to circulation, so as to prevent the coronavirus from spreading. He suggested it won’t be long before the U.K. and U.S. has to do the same and reminded me to avoid using ATMs, especially in London. “You don’t want to be the person that’s caused a medical disaster when all you want is a Snickers!” he joked.