4 December 2023

Misleading: ATMs in Shanghai were never suspended over fears of virus-carrying banknotes

Banking services in Shanghai were suspended during the lockdown from mid-March to the end of May but they are now fully in operation.


In June, a series of tweets in different languages claimed banks in Shanghai suspended ATM operations due to the fear of contaminated cash spreading COVID-19.

Most of these tweets included a video from the YouTube channel “Spotlight on China,” a self-claimed news channel based in the United States, which has been viewed more than 4,600 times.

The posts in Chinese, English, Spanish, and Japanese have over 1,400 likes and more than 870 retweets as of this writing. The Japanese voice over of the video appears to have been generated through a text-to-speech tool.

The YouTube video claims the long queue was due to the shutdown of ATMs amid the fear of being infected with the virus through cash handlings.

This claim, however, is misleading.

Banking services in Shanghai were suspended for over two months from mid-March during the lockdown following a resurgence in COVID-19 cases in the city.

Different banks told Annie Lab that they have not heard any issues about their cash being supposedly contaminated with the coronavirus.

The China Banking and Insurance Regulatory Commission Shanghai Office said operations have started to normalize after the lockdown was lifted on June 1, with demand for Shanghai’s banking services reaching its “peak” this month due to the work that has accumulated since March.

Jing Xiao Wei (金晓玮), the head of the Shanghai branch of the Industrial and Commercial Bank of China, also said the long queue was the result of accumulated financial work.

Annie Lab looked into announcements from some major banks in Shanghai and found ATM services have become available in the city gradually.

Postal Savings Bank of China said on May 31, 2022, that they are “ensuring automated self-service machines function normally, to minimize the gathering and waiting time of the clients.”

Xinmin Evening News reported on 16 June that ATM services in Shanghai have resumed.

In late May, a Shanghai Rural Commercial Bank branch opened four in-person counters and two ATMs to cope with the rising banking demands, while the Shanghai branch of Shanghai Pudong Development Bank is reported to have diverted customer flow to traditional counters or automated machines according to their needs.

This news from China DragonTV shows staff teaching an elder to use ATM in a Shanghai bank in early June.

Even with the resumption of ATM services, however, the slots of counter services have been limited, causing the long queues.

Postal Savings Bank of China in Shanghai set a quota of 40 bank accounts per day for offline banking services, pushing many elder customers to queue outside the bank, according to Xinmin Evening News.

Other banks in Shanghai also had similar policies. A news report said the elderly have to rely on offline banking for daily transactions because they are unfamiliar with smartphone banking. Even with the quota restrictions, people refused to leave, hoping to wait for a new round of tickets to get their savings and pension from their accounts, it said.

The Shanghai headquarters of the People’s Bank of China, the country’s central bank, issued a notice on June 9 and asked banks to streamline their cash withdrawal and pension payment procedures for the elderly. It said PBC has also increased its cash allocation by four times from June 1 to 15 as compared to last year.

Comparison of images from Knews, Sina Finance, and Xinmin Evening News with the video by Spotlight on China.

Annie Lab was unable to confirm if the video used by Spotlight on China is their original footage or sourced from somewhere else. But we did find similar scenes showing old people queuing outside banks in other news reports including Knews, Xinmin Evening News, and Sina Finance.

They all said the elderly lined up outside the Postal Savings Bank of China because branches in Shanghai have quota restrictions. They did not mention anything about virus-contaminated cash.

Low chances of COVID-19 infection through banknotes

Banks such as Bank of China, Bank of Communications, and China Construction Bank told Annie Lab that they have not received any complaints regarding infection through banknotes. The Shanghai anti-epidemic requirements banks need to follow do not mention banknote transmission, either.

The chances of catching the coronavirus by way of handling cash are smaller than by breathing in virus-laden droplets or aerosols, according to a study conducted in 2020 by the Bank of England. It found the level of the virus on a banknote declined rapidly over time. The virus on the note can still be detected within 24 hours but only at a very low level.

The World Health Organization has not warned people against the use of cash during the pandemic, according to an article by the U.K.-based fact-checking organization Full Fact.

Many banks in Shanghai are reported to have carried out extensive anti-epidemic measures before the resumption of services. Shanghai Securities News wrote disinfection of the environment and temporary isolation spots for visitors who showed COVID-19 symptoms are seen among banks.

Some banks also have policies to sterilize the banknotes before circulation as a cautionary measure. China Merchants Bank, for example, uses UV lamps on cash to prevent cross-contamination during the handling process.