“We have been the first ones with the most rigorous and accurate controls,” he said in an address to the nation. “We have more people infected because we made more swabs.”
The next day, as infections surpassed 200, seven people died and the stock market plunged, Mr. Conte and his health aides doubled down.
He blamed the Codogno hospital for the spread, saying it had handled things in “a not-completely-proper way” and argued that Lombardy and Veneto, another northern region, were inflating the severity of the problem by diverging from global guidelines and testing people without symptoms.
As Lombardy officials scrambled to free up hospital beds, and the number of infected people rose to 309 with 11 dead, Mr. Conte said on Feb. 25 that “Italy is a safe country and probably safer than many others.”
On Friday, Mr. Conte’s office offered an interview on the condition that he could answer questions in writing. When sent questions, including those about his past statements, he declined to respond.
Mixed Messages Sow Confusion
Reassurances from leaders confused the Italian population.
On Feb. 27, Mr. Zingaretti posted his aperitivo picture. That same day, the country’s foreign minister, Luigi Di Maio, the former leader of one of the governing parties, the Five Star Movement, held a news conference in Rome.
“In Italy, we went from the risk of an epidemic to an infodemic,” Mr. Di Maio said, disparaging media coverage that highlighted the threat of the contagion, and adding that only “0.089 percent” of the Italian population was quarantined.