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The story of this pandemic is partially a story of the decline of cash. 

It started in early February, when the Chinese government told banks to sterilise money before issuing it in order to curb the virus’ spread. The European Banking Authority last month also officially encouraged payment methods that can ‘stem the spread’ of the virus. Tapping to pay – either through a card or a smartphone app – is now preferred.

Payment companies and regulators worked together to rollout an increase for contactless spending limits, from £30 to £45 in the United Kingdom with similar rises elsewhere. A process that has taken years in the past took just a few weeks. The national rollout began on April 1.

The changes have been acute. Cash usage has been cut in half in the UK while hundreds of businesses are encouraging or even requiring contactless payments.

The move hasn’t been universal. As the virus spread through Germany, people withdrew money from ATMs to hold on to their cash – even though most deposits are protected by national insurance schemes. Germans' heavy reliance on cash certainly plays a role in this abnormal behavior.

The decline of cash

Payment processors around the world should welcome the quick shift away from their longtime enemy, cash.

Even before Covid-19, cash usage has been in decline. People pay by card because it’s easier and safer to complete transactions; merchants offer this option because there’s a reduction in administration on their part, and governments love that it makes tax evasion harder.

But there are disadvantages. Cashless societies can lock out the most vulnerable from an increasingly digital economy. Access to good mortgages can be blocked by a lack of a detailed credit history.

Are the Germans more likely to get the virus as they cling to cash? Not really. Euronews reported that banknotes are not likely to carry the virus. To quote Stephanie Brickman, WHO, “We do not know [how long the virus lasts on banknotes], but we estimate not longer than two hours.” Most transmission of the virus that causes the Covid-19 disease is through person-to-person contact and not from touching objects.

PR in tough times

For communicators working in payments during this time of disruption, I have some simple advice. Stay on top of the news agenda so your business doesn’t appear tone-deaf to larger market issues.

Nobody wants to be called out by a journalist on Twitter because of the press release or pitch. It’s crucial to adjust the timing and messaging of planned announcements. Where necessary, delay announcements to allow time to tie in information relevant to what is happening in the industry. Make sure to follow what reporters are writing, which companies they’re speaking to, and what they’re saying on social media.

Don’t be afraid to reach out to offer help. It seems there is a new update on a daily basis, and journalists will need help from industry experts to make sense of events. We’re all in this together – put yourself in the other person’s shoes and try to help. When all this will be over, you will find yourself, and the business you represent, in a much better place.

Viali Munteanu is a senior account executive in London