Why do we care more for a building than for human life?

My newsfeed has been bombarded by pictures of Notre Dame de Paris, burning. It is a dramatic blaze—orange flames engulfing the cathedral’s spire, the cathedral’s iconic rose window glowing from within, pillar of smoke visible for miles. On Facebook, countless friends post touristy photos of their past visits to the cathedral, in tribute to the monument and in mourning to what was there (in their photos) and now lost.

Overnight, over €600 million was raised to rebuild the cathedral. One of my LSHTM classmates, meanwhile, makes a comment about raising funds for those affected in Mozambique and Zimbabwe. What happened there? There was no mention on my newsfeed—I had to look it up online. Last month, one of the worst tropical cyclones on record, Cyclone Idai, ripped through southeastern coast of Africa. Over 1,000 are dead, thousands more are missing, and damage is estimated at over $2 billion.

The UN has said Cyclone Idai has affected hundreds of thousands, if not millions, of people.

Contrast this event to the burning of Notre Dame: Zero casualties. (One firefighter seriously injured.)

Why did I know immediately about Notre Dame, but I had no idea Cyclone Idai had happened until a month later?

What is it about Notre Dame that makes it so universally missed/mourned for? Why do so many more people feel compelled to give to rebuild a cathedral, but not to provide life-saving shelter and food for thousands of people in crisis? Is it the lack of people involved in this incident? Is it the personal connection—that so many people have visited and walked inside Notre Dame, yet probably have never visited Mozambique, Zimbabwe, or Malawi? Is it the fault of the news media, for dictating what receives our attention and failing to raise awareness of a much greater issue? Is it the benefit of having dramatic imagery of the fire? The importance of the cathedral as a symbol of French identity? A lack of care for certain populations, rooted in a history of colonial oppression? Something else entirely?

One thought on “Why do we care more for a building than for human life?

  1. Was searching for a journal-published version of the Santa Clara seroprevalence study, and came across this blog. Publication coming soon? On the subject matter above, we tend to get desensitized to repeated stimuli, which is probably an evolutionary adaptation. That might happen with our covid-19 response too.


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