Minju Jung By: Minju Jung
Doctoral Researcher in Politics and International Relations
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06 Jun 2020 : The Disappearance of the old

I travelled to Cambodia with my mom to see Angkor Wat and its cities a few years ago. The public transportation system of the country was not well-developed at the time when we travelled. We used a Tuk tuk, which is a two-wheeled carriage connected to a motorbike, to travel around the cities. It was an open carriage, and so we were able to enjoy the breeze and see vividly the Cambodian life from a close distance.

We passed by many scenes, and I still remember a few impressive images of them. Two things surprised me the most. First, it was seen that many young and middle-aged adults stay at home instead of going to work. Second, the infrastructure visible to the tourist is proof enough for the country’s poverty. It was initially shocking, because Cambodia was richer than South Korea in around the 1950s and aided rice during the Korean War.

One of the reasons for severe poverty in this country is the massive number of deaths of intellectuals, who were killed by the Khmer Rouge regime. The massacre, which occurred from 1975 to 1979, annihilated the intellectual class, which included teachers, government officials and doctors. The loss of the intellectuals caused the collapse of the education, health, and governance systems. This has influenced the country for over 30 years and, as a result, has resulted in the low social and economic development of Cambodia.

The loss of a particular group of a society causes a long term, negative impact on the society.

Globally, this pandemic has hit harshly the old in particular. Many old people have died from COVID-19 over the past few months. This means that a particular group of people who have been a part of our society has disappeared unexpectedly in a very short time. I think about what the massive loss of the old means to us.

First, the loss of the old means the loss of the living memories of human history. They were the witnesses of historic (and historical) glories and tragedies of the 20th and early 21st century. We are losing people who can warn us of the destructive events that we may recklessly ignite. The lessons that they learned throughout their life were precious for us so as we don’t repeat the same mistakes. They witnessed World War II, the Cultural Revolution in the 1960s, the oil shock in the 1970s, the economic crisis in the 1990s, the 9/11 and the Iraq War in the 2000s, etc.

Every old person perhaps remembers historic events differently. Their vivid memories of a particular event from different perspectives teach us the impact of the event on the various aspects of a society. They have warned us what would happen if we intervene in the affairs of other countries carelessly, if we ignore the abuse of power of authoritarian regimes, and if we keep silent of the emergence of extremisms. In particular, their memories of wars are important. Wars have been recorded and conveyed as novels, poems, documentaries, films, and photos. However, there is nothing more powerful than the memories of living people who recall their experiences of the destructive and devastating wars. Not only their vivid testimony in documentaries, but also, more importantly, their conversation with the young such as their children and grandchildren are important to encourage us to understand the destructive consequences of war and take a war seriously.

Second, we are losing the diversity of our societies. For me, a society where different ideas coexist, in particular, where the ideas of minors are respected, is resilient and sound. Different and conflicting ideas develop discussions among people. People develop their way of thinking by listening to different ideas. This helps them to learn how to resolve conflicts and compromise with other ideas that are different from theirs. People could understand the difference between ‘wrong’ and ‘different’ ideas.

What I’m concerned of the most regarding the deaths of the massive number of the old, is that it may impact the diversity of our societies. The ideas and opinions of elderly people has been an important part of our societies. The ideas of the old generation influence the young generation to remember the values that the society has kept and preserved. The opinions of the old slow down the rapid change of the society that inevitably has a greater impact on the unprepared and marginalised groups. Respecting and listening to their perspectives contribute to the balanced development of a society.

I think about the death of the old in this pandemic. Yesterday, the death toll from COVID-19 in the UK reached over 40,000. I reckon that the majority of the dead must be the old. One day, hopefully not, might come for us to think about the impact of the gap the massive deaths of the old have caused.

PS. (my anotoher thought today): The young, passionate fixed-term teaching colleagues in my department have been told to go. I heard that the Uni and the faculty argued that the termination of their contract was inevitable because of COVID-19. Was their decision regarding the young temporary professionals really attributed to this pandemic? Seriously? Perhaps yes, but also NO. It may be just that the Uni is finding a good excuse to sack them. It is hard to doubt that their short-sighted decisions to cut casual workers today will affect the Universities with a real destructive impact.

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