What COVID-19 Teaches Us About the ‘Cashless Economy’ Fever Dream

What COVID-19 Teaches Us About the 'Cashless Economy' Fever Dream“Hija, does this mean I can’t go out to buy noodles because I don’t have a credit card?”

That was the third time my grandmother barged into our room while I’m on a Zoom call. I shot my colleagues an apologetic look and gently told my abuela that I’ll take a look at whatever she’s trying to show me later — after work.

9 days into the quarantine lockdown and still, my 80-year-old grandma seems so surprised that I’m not just playing video games when I’m hunkered down in front of my laptop at home.

This is what it’s like to work from home in a lower-middle class household in a third world country. I don’t have a “working desk,” but we do have an altar in the room, so I’m currently sharing a co-working space with four Virgin Mary statues, five different renditions of Christ on the cross, and countless other saints I can’t even name.

Our Filipino home is so small that it’s practically impossible to have any semblance of privacy anywhere, and my family just can’t seem to grasp the idea of working from home. So they talk loudly, ask me to take out the trash loudly, and sometimes even reprimand me loudly for being on my laptop the whole day.

But we don’t have much choice, so we manage.

Inevitably, as it always does, the work day comes to an end. I shut my laptop and suddenly my pseudo-office turned into our living room once again.

I walked to where my grandma has been sitting in the sala to answer her question, which I assumed was about something trivial. She turned to me and asked:

“They said in the news that cash money carries the virus, so we’re all supposed to use credit cards now. Ay, how do I get one?”

I felt so guilty upon hearing this. I have been so caught up with how this global pandemic has turned my life upside down, I completely overlooked how it is making my grandmother insecure.

Not only is she more susceptible to the virus than most of us, but she’s also unable to keep up with how fast the world is moving towards digital transformation.

The Case Against ‘Dirty Money’

At first glance, it’s not difficult to discern where the idea of going fully digital gets its appeal from.

In theory, cashless societies foster lower crime rates. Even if thieves or snatchers get ahold of your plastic card, it would take you mere seconds to call your bank and have your account suspended — before criminals can do any real damage.

There’s also less risk for retail business workers, who have had to deal with close to 6,000 robberies in 2018 alone — just in the United States.

With a global pandemic at hand, the prospects of a cashless society are shining brightly more than ever.

The World Health Organization (WHO) and the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) have both encouraged businesses to only accept contactless payments, with bills and coins believed to be very effective transmitters of the coronavirus.

For those of us who are banked and carded, this directive is no big deal. In fact, if it does help stop the spread of a deadly virus, why not?

Well, here’s why not.

The Vulnerable Are Left Behind

It took me half an hour to convince my grandmother that it’s okay, that she can still buy noodles from our neighborhood grocery store even if she did not have a credit card.

At that point, I was confident that I was telling the truth. But who knows what would happen tomorrow?

Stricken with fear amid a global health crisis, we seem to be moving faster than ever towards an all-digital, cashless economy, so much so that we no longer stop to think about the people we might be leaving behind.

I do not remember the last time I saw insecurity in my grandmother’s eyes. Having lived her whole life diligently, she’s supposed to be living a comfortable life now, instead of worrying about not getting invited into this futuristic world we’re building.

And she’s not the only one.

The Federal Deposit Insurance Corporation found that of the total population of the U.S., close to 7% remains unbanked. The demographic is disheartening. Apparently, over 16% of African Americans and 14% of Hispanic people in the States do not have bank accounts.

In the U.K., The Fintech Times revealed that over 8 million people — and 80% of elderly homes — still depend on traditional payment methods.

Unsurprisingly, it’s the marginalized, the elderly, the minorities, and the immigrants who suffer the most as the world gets swept up in the cashless economy fever dream.

It’s ironic, because the entire selling proposition of cashless advocates is that cashless society and financial inclusivity are two sides of a single coin.

Telltale Signs of An Inclusive Economy

But what does an inclusive economy really look like?

The Rockefeller Foundation identified five key characteristics of an inclusive economy, but for purposes of this article, we will focus on just two: participation and stability.

The first one means the public is able to completely participate in the economic life, either as consumers or business owners. Furthermore, technology should be accessible and have the potential to promote well-being.

Stability, on the other hand, indicates that members of a society possess a high level of certainty and confidence in the future, as well as the ability to correctly predict the result of their economic decisions. A stable economy is one that can weather shocks, especially when it comes to black swan events that have a widely disproportionate impact on the rich and the poor.

Let’s illustrate this by pondering upon a simple question: how would an inclusive economy handle the global coronavirus pandemic?

The Ideal World During a Pandemic

If we lived in a highly inclusive economy, the coronavirus problem would be just as alarming, but we’d be on a better footing to remain resilient.

If the economy were really inclusive, I, for one, wouldn’t need to find side hustles just to keep my family fed. My finances would be in no worse shape than my employer’s. I wouldn’t have to worry about defaulting on my mortgage. I wouldn’t even have to wait for government dole-outs and payment suspensions to keep my finances in check. That’s stability.

Instead, I work day in and day out on lockdown, sharing a cramped space with four other people, while the owner of the broadcasting company I work for sits comfortably in his private superyacht that’s large enough for 50 people to practice social distancing onboard.

Worse, with what little I have as a middle-class earner, I still feel guilty for having more and not being able to help others who have it worse.

Yesterday, an old homeless lady asked me for spare change while I was hurrying home from the drugstore. I couldn’t look her in the eye while explaining that I don’t carry cash anymore. As I said goodbye, I heard her mutter that it’s more likely that she dies of hunger than COVID-19.

And I really couldn’t argue with her logic.

In an ideal world, everyone would have a debit card or at least a smartphone with an e-wallet to keep themselves protected by doing contactless payments during a global health crisis.

Instead, 77% of my country’s population don’t even have the most basic bank account. In effect, they would be unable to participate in the economy should we fully ban cash payments amid the pandemic. That means they can’t even shop online, so they have to walk for hours, exposing themselves to our invisible enemy — just to get their food shopping done.

They are the ones most vulnerable to financial exclusion in a cashless economy scenario.

Doing Better, Moving Forward

This is not to say we should collectively stand in the way of digital transformation. Not only will that be counterproductive — it will also be futile.

Cash is fast losing its relevance, and there’s nothing much that we can do about it.

COVID-19 is likewise helping to build a pretty strong case for a cashless economy, and we’re all ears.

But I deeply, sincerely ask you to keep in mind the poor, the elderly, the homeless, and every other minority group who might be unfairly precluded from cashless societies.

We can’t celebrate modernization while making it virtually impossible for entire communities to keep up.

After all, the concept of going cashless is not the enemy. If anything, it is but a neutral idea that’s just as good — or as bad — as the people who practice it.

So if we are diving head on into a fully digitized society, a huge cultural shift must precede it.

First, the government and the private sector must work hand in hand to create an accessible infrastructure for cashless, contactless transactions.

Together, you and I should also do our part in supporting information campaigns that may improve access to information on cashless economies.

Perhaps we can even lobby for governments around the world to provide each citizen with a basic bank account — where the poor could also receive their subsidies. It can act as their gateway to the amazing world of financial inclusion.

Finally, we can discourage businesses from fully doing away with cash transactions, at least until after we’ve secured access for our less fortunate fellows.

None of these solutions will be easy, but we’re not going for easy. We’re going for inclusivity, regardless of how long it might take us to get there.

Because at the core, we have to think of access to digital solutions as a right, and not as a privilege that may only be enjoyed by those who already have more in life.

After all, the best way to move forward is to make sure that no one gets left behind.

I, for one, will start teaching my grandmother how to shop online. It took me a solid quarter-year just to teach her how to use a touch screen phone, so I already know it’s going to be brutal. But that’s okay, as long as I find myself an actual working desk before she realizes she can order a lot more saints online.

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Category: SpendingUnconventional Opinions

4 comments

  1. Good article. Canadians are farther in this process. The Canadian government requires all banks to offer low cost chequing accounts to anyone with acceptable ID. And it is easy to order your ID at any service office or online. I haven’t used cash in years.

  2. Hi!

    I found this article through Camp FIRE’s feature, and I’m so glad I did. It’s very rare to see Filipino writers tackle financial literacy issues even in the cashless debate, which is weird because it’s touted as the way to dissolve geographical divides wherever you are in the world. I feel the wind in my chest reading this, finally someone said it! It’s not that we don’t want to ride the digital wave, but the waters are scary and we don’t have the same surfboards like the rest of the world. The best we have are styrofoam floaties, if that even makes sense. This is a great article that makes me feel seen and heard. Thank you for this.

    1. Thank you for your comment, Sam. I try my best to feature voices of people from all walks of life, especially those who aren’t usually heard. Your comment just further reinforced my resolve to keep this site diversity-friendly, so thank you for that. 🙂

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Article by: Rosabell Toledo

Rosabell is a 20-something journalist from Manila. Her financial awakening started when she was 8. She spent 150 minutes wondering why Ron Weasley had to show up to Hogwarts in second hand robes with a second hand pet rat, while Harry Potter can practically buy the entire school (probably).