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From Benazir Bhutto to Imran Khan: A tale of poor risk perception

Updated May 17, 2013 02:14pm

enter image description herePakistanis have a poor risk perception. Many preventable deaths and injuries occur because of it. Imran Khan’s fall from a forklift truck, which could very well have been fatal, speaks volumes of the poor risk perception of the event planners.

While campaigning late in the evening, Mr. Khan was being lifted to the stage from an unsecured forklift truck. Footage of the incident reveals that the plan was a recipe for a disaster waiting to happen. The makeshift platform on the forklift was not secured. When yet another well-meaning PTI worker tried to climb on the forklift, he inadvertently pushed Mr. Khan and others off the forklift to the ground.

Risk perception and preparedness are key to avoiding unnecessary disastrous outcomes. Risk perception is a subjective judgement one makes about the probability of a negative or an adverse outcome. For instance, trying to have a better understanding of the odds of one falling off a makeshift platform on a forklift could be categorised as risk perception. Obviously, those who came up with the brilliant plan to use an unsecured forklift to hoist Mr. Khan to the top of yet another unsecured container did not think of the risks involved. Unfortunately, Pakistan Tehreek-e-Insaaf (PTI) organisers are not alone with poor risk perception.

The tragic death of the former prime minister Benazir Bhutto in December 2007 was also a case of poor risk perception. Having been explicitly warned of the threats against her, Ms. Bhutto failed to remain seated in the secured vehicle as she was leaving after addressing a political rally. She died of trauma to her head after a bomb blast while she stood though the vehicle’s sunroof. Apparently her head hit the hard metal used to secure the vehicle against bomb blasts. Others seated within the car with her remain unscathed. It is safe to assume that had she remained seated within the secured vehicle, she would have escaped harm like the rest of the passengers.

Every time I see people hanging from a moving bus or train, or a family with kids riding a motorcycle, I am reminded of two things. First, Pakistanis have poor risk perception. They seldom factor in the probability of negative outcomes, such as an infant falling off a moving motorcycle. At the same time, I am reminded of the fact that the lack of means may force many Pakistanis to assume risks that they could not avoid. If a family could afford a car or a ride on secure and reliable public transit, the children could be spared a hazardous ride on the motorcycle.

But what to say of avoidable risks and risk preparedness. Take fire or emergency drills as an example. While I was a live-in director of a student residence at McGill University, we would regularly hold surprise fire drills. We would trigger the fire alarm in the middle of the night and evacuate the building as per set protocols. We would monitor the evacuation time for each floor and look for individual students who failed to follow the evacuation procedures. We would then follow-up with the students who may have taken the wrong path to exit the building or took too long to evacuate. At the same time, the local fire department monitors its response time to the University residence that is situated on the mountain, offering picturesque views of the beautiful Montreal.

It is rather odd that a country that faces severe natural hazards, floods and earthquakes to name a couple, is least prepared to cope with them. This is a direct result of poor risk perception and planning. It was not always like this in Pakistan. I grew up in a Pakistan where such preparedness existed to some extent. The British indeed left Pakistan with the foundation for risk preparedness. Parts of Murree that were built by the British had proper provisions for fire hydrants. There is one fire hydrant still installed, most likely not functional, on the Lower Mall in Murree, reminding of the prudent planning British planning traditions.

At the first Pakistan Urban Forum in Lahore in March 2011, I asked the participants if they had ever seen a fire hydrant in Pakistan. Not a single participant of the hundreds present in the audience replied in affirmative.

As a child, I recall seeing the civil defense volunteers in Rawalpindi during the monsoon season. Before the heavy rains would set in, civil defense volunteers would prepare for flash floods. Their teams were equipped with rescue boats and other equipment. Alarms were tested in advance to ensure that in case of a flash flood, the vulnerable communities could be warned by sounding alarms. Years later, when flash floods inundated large parts of Rawalpindi, no such preparedness existed. People lost their life savings and belongings to flood waters that crept into their homes without warning.

While some risks may be unavoidable, most are. The widespread use of Kohl (surma or kajal) in South Asia is one example of an avoidable risk whose risk perception is poor. Kohl often contains large amounts of lead. Women in South Asia, and not just in Pakistan, apply kohl as eye makeup. Many unsuspecting mothers apply it to their infants, exposing them to lead poisoning. Introducing any foreign object to one’s eyes should be considered risky, let alone lead.

Pakistanis can avoid the excessive burden of disease, injury, and death by having better risk perception and preparedness. This will not happen if even the foreign-educated political leaders assume unnecessary risks and thus set poor examples.