Coronavirus: Prime Minister Jacinda Ardern reflects on locking down New Zealand

"It was both eerie and incredible."

That's how Prime Minister Jacinda Ardern described the streets of Wellington after she announced last year that on March 25 New Zealand would enter alert level 4 lockdown to curb the spread of COVID-19.

In a speech to the National Emergency Management Agency Conference on Wednesday, Ardern said she took the responsibility of emergency management "very seriously" - something she attributed to her father who was a policeman. 

"Over the course of his 40-year career I watched him in many different scenarios, including 14 years as a detective in the CIB. Even in the most harrowing situation, he always had a concise and yet calm way of working through a situation."

Ardern also spent time at university observing a 111 call centre, "sitting and listening as operators took call after call with people in the most difficult of circumstances", which taught her to listen, stay calm but also apply the "sense of urgency" required. 

"I hadn't thought much about those hours in that call centre till recently, when I found myself observing countless frontline staff facing similar trauma and emergencies, and watched them take that very same approach - calm, considered, empathetic. 

"And embedded amongst that communication is a really key element - information. In a crisis, people will not only be facing the issue at hand, but the sense of uncertainty that comes with it. Uncertainty is frightening.

"And information is a powerful antidote to that fear. The more information people have about a situation they're facing, the better equipped they are to respond."

It was that relaying of information that became so important during one of New Zealand's most significant crises, Ardern said. 

"I can still remember the day that we introduced the alert level framework for COVID. There was a lot of nervousness that we were asking New Zealanders to do an extraordinary thing, with entirely new rules, in a very short time frame. But while it wasn't always perfect, the overall response was remarkable."

Ardern said at the time, the Government was still thinking about a 'flattening the curve' approach, but it soon became clear an elimination plan was the only way. Modelling at the time showed that if eradication failed, thousands could die.  

 The Government introduced the four-tiered alert level system on March 21 last year, and the country was immediately put in alert level 2. The border was closed to all but New Zealand citizens and permanent residents two days prior. 

In what would soon become a regular occurrence, at a 1pm press conference on March 23 last year, Ardern announced that New Zealand had moved to alert level 3, and in 48 hours a strict alert level 4 lockdown would come into effect. 

The country stayed in alert level 4 lockdown until April 27 - a month of self-isolation. The level 3 lockdown continued until May 13, when the country finally shifted to alert level 2. 

"I still remember making our original alert level announcement. Everything moved so quickly. At the beginning of the week we were still talking about a model that had us 'flattening the curve'," Ardern said. 

"In just a few days we had modelling that told us that wouldn't be sufficient, and we would need to use restrictions to save lives.

"But how could we communicate the idea that we would need to move in and out of a set of tools that included everything from gathering limits to standing at a certain distance apart from one another?"

Ardern said the Government used the same kind of framework for water level alerts or fire hazards. 

"By Friday we had a draft, by Saturday we shared it with New Zealand, and a few days later we were in a total lockdown.

"I still remember making that announcement and walking from the Beehive to Premier House. The streets were dead. It was both eerie and incredible. 

"I will never ever underestimate the power of sharing a problem with the nation, no matter how complex, and people's ability to use that information to respond. It was both profound and overwhelming."

Even after a year has passed, COVID-19 is still raging across the globe. It has claimed the lives of more than 3.4 million people, with some countries like India experiencing a massive wave of infections and deaths. 

With a total of 26 COVID-related deaths in New Zealand, it's difficult to argue that our emergency management has lived up to the challenge.