No two fires are the same

Minutes for the world to learn of Notre-Dame… months before international media noticed the Amazon.
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By Casey Chua
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2019 had its fair share of crises.

We saw meteorological crises such Cyclone Idai in March 2019, the deadliest tropical cyclone recorded in the South-West Indian Ocean basin which claimed at least 1,300 lives in Africa, and Typhoon Hagibis which killed more than 90 people, leaving damage in excess of USD15 billion – the costliest Pacific typhoon to date.

The notable maritime incidents in 2019 include the sinking of river cruiser Hableány on the Danube River in May, where 27 perished, and the sinking of dive boat MV Conception off the coast of Santa Cruz Island, California in September, with the loss of 33 passengers and one crew member.

I remember 2019 as a year when the public were divided in their reactions to crises.

When the Notre-Dame de Paris caught fire (15 April), the ensuing media coverage was immediate. The response from the authorities was equally swift: French President Emmanuel Macron, due to deliver a televised address that evening, cancelled his gig and made a beeline for the crisis scene. He vowed to rebuild what had been lost, announcing a worldwide fundraising campaign for the 850-year-old cathedral.

Reactions from the global community came quickly. German Chancellor Angela Merkel offered her sympathies, saying “our thoughts are with our French friends”. British Prime Minister, Theresa May, expressed her thoughts for the people of France and emergency services battling the devastating fire.

There were condolences from Asian countries as well. Iranian Foreign Minister, Mohammad Javad Zarif, declared he was “saddened by the fact that Notre-Dame is partially destroyed, after having resisted for 800 years, both wars and the French Revolution”. Mr Yoshihide Suga, Chief Cabinet Secretary of Japan, opined that “it’s a loss for the world and we feel deeply saddened”.

Macron’s appeal for donations to rebuild the cathedral certainly did not fall on deaf ears. According to news reports, about €880 million was raised less than one day after Macron’s appeal, with the bulk coming from French billionaires such as Bernard Arnault, Liliane Bettencourt and François Henri Pinault.

Elsewhere, in the Amazon rainforests, where wildfires have been raging since early 2019, the international response couldn’t have been more different. While it took minutes for the world to learn of the Notre-Dame fire, it took several months before the international media noticed the Amazon fires.

The billionaires and industrialists did not dole out the amounts they did for Notre-Dame de Paris. Europe’s richest man, Bernard Arnault, announced that his LVMH group would donate €10 million to the fight against the Amazon rainforest wildfires, but it is worth noting that he donated twenty times that amount towards rebuilding Notre-Dame.

Indeed, many took to social media to question why donations do not appear to be as forthcoming when the need is humanitarian or ecological.

As I try to make sense of the disparity between the reactions to the two fires, I am guided by the litmus test we use to predict the level of media interest – (1) visibility, (2) recognisable names, (3) a connection to a larger story, and (4) an impact on a wider audience.

The Notre-Dame fire ticks all four boxes; it is the most visited monument in Paris with around 13 million visitors annually, and it carries considerable architectural, historical and cultural significance. Luxury brand Dior refers to the cathedral as “an integral part of the history of France”.

As a UNESCO World Heritage Site, it has been immortalised in popular culture in Victor Hugo’s 1831 novel, The Hunchback of Notre-Dame and more recently, Disney’s 1996 animated film of the same title.

The ongoing public rivalry between François Henri Pinault and Bernard Arnault, who have a history of one-upmanship, certainly captured French media interest. Hours after Pinault announced a donation of €100 million, Arnault announced he would pledge twice that amount – €200 million.

Did the Amazon rainforest wildfires meet the criteria for media interest? Did they resonate with the general public in the same way as the Notre-Dame fire did? I’ll let you be the judge of that.

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