China is literally cleaning its money to stop the spread of coronavirus

China’s coronavirus response now includes cash cleansing.
China’s coronavirus response now includes cash cleansing.
Image: REUTERS/Aly Song
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As the Chinese government continues its effort to slow the spread of the deadly coronavirus, the country’s central bank at a press conference today (Feb. 15) told media it was going to begin literally cleaning its currency.

It’s an extreme move that makes sense. Whether it’s dollars, pounds, euros, shekels, or in this case yuan, currency is notoriously dirty. A 2017 study (pdf) of $1 bills in New York found some 397 bacterial species living on the surface. And when someone with the flu handles it, that virus has been shown to survive for up to 12 days.

The World Health Organization has said that it is still not known how long the the coronavirus can survive on surfaces and objects, including money. Preliminary information has shown it can survive a few hours or more, but can be killed with basic disinfectants.

Under normal circumstances governments around the world spend around $10 billion a year to replace currency that’s in bad condition. But when something as severe as the coronavirus is spreading, a nation may opt to take more drastic measures.

One method for cleaning money is to use ultraviolet light or high temperatures on it, then seal the cash away for one to two weeks before releasing it back into circulation. When possible, the Chinese bank said, it would provide brand-new banknotes to people.

The decision comes as the Chinese government faces considerable domestic backlash over its handling of the coronavirus. As of today there have been over 67,000 confirmed cases of the virus and 1,527 deaths. Meanwhile, the 11 million people living in Wuhan, the outbreak’s epicenter and capital of Hubei Province, have been living under tight lockdown. Hospitals there are so overpopulated that the government has erected and herded people into makeshift quarantine camps.

The government has also faced criticism for attempting to control the flow of information around the spread of the virus. It largely failed to do that, though at least two citizen journalists have gone missing after reporting on the situation in Wuhan.

Today, the first coronavirus death outside Asia was reported in France. In that case, an 80-year-old tourist from Hubei Province died at Bichat-Claude Bernard Hospital in the north of Paris. France has 11 confirmed cases of the illness.