It seems like an eternity, but it was just a few months ago. As the world moved into a new decade, futurists, economists, technologists… were busy announcing the megatrends that would shape the 2020s: global warming, globalisation, digitalisation, ageing population, gender equality, migration, inequality, cybercrime…
And for those involved or interested in money, payments and transactions, the big question was how will these trends impact the future of money? What will money look like in 2030? Who will issue it? Will it be digital, physical, phygital? How do we evaluate trust? Who will win the payments race: BigTech, banks, PSPs? How will we value privacy? Which central bank will be the first to issue a Central Bank Digital Currency? Will cybercrime be kept under control? How can we build a sustainable monetary system?
The Coronavirus outbreak has changed that. It has changed the time horizon. We are no longer looking at the next decade. We started looking at the next months. Should we reschedule business trips, cancel overseas travel and delay ongoing projects? Then as the outbreak evolved into a pandemic, the horizon shrunk again to a matter of weeks and now days. When will the epidemic peak? How long will the confinement last? For how long will food supplies last?
It has also changed our hierarchy of values. Stock exchanges have collapsed wiping out billions of dollars, euros and yuans across the globe. Bitcoin has lost half its market value since mid-February. Meanwhile, panic buying has emptied supermarket shelves across the Western world, in spite of pleas by governments and retailers attempting to reassure customers that supply chains are secure. Toilet paper has become one of the most coveted items; in Australia, two women were charged in court for fighting over toilet paper in a supermarket; in Hong Kong knife-wielding robbers stole 50 packs of toilet paper rolls from a supermarket delivery man.
But the pandemic has also given rise to incredible gestures of solidarity. In Wuhan, at the centre of the outbreak, videos circulating on social media showed people shouting “Wuhan jiayou” from their windows, roughly translated to “Stay strong Wuhan”. The BBC reports that a restaurant owner in Wuhan spent the Lunar New Year festival packing food for medical workers in the city. Across Italy, people have been singing from their balconies in an effort to boost morale as the country was placed under lockdown. According to Deutsche Welle, worldwide, people gather on their balconies and at their windows to cheer health workers on the frontline of the crisis. In France, neighbours offer to deliver groceries to the elderly; in Ireland, volunteers are sending groceries to hospital staff.
Tedros Adhanom, head of the World Health Organisation, calls the Coronavirus outbreak a ‘test of political solidarity’ against a ‘common enemy that does not respect borders or ideologies’, as well as a test of financial and scientific solidarity. In a crisis, the most vulnerable are the first victims. This includes the elderly, the homeless, the poor, those with disabilities and the unbanked. Many people in these groups rely exclusively on cash for their daily purchases. Some media have been falsely reporting that cash may be spreading the Coronavirus. In spite of a number of clarifications from health experts or central banks, many shops are refusing to accept cash and this is placing the most vulnerable people at risk.
In the Financial Times, journalist Alice Hearing explains how she temporarily and involuntarily joined the unbanked after losing her purse. “Being without a bankcard was an inconvenience for me for a few days — but for more than a million other people in the UK, a cash-only existence is a fact of life. As the Coronavirus crisis deepens, this is becoming even more of a social problem.” Worldwide, 1.7 billion adult are unbanked, representing 31% of the global population.
As we tackle this pandemic, let us all demonstrate solidarity and ensure that the most vulnerable are not further ghettoized by a new monetary divide.