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Female iPhone Factory Worker Walked 25 Miles to Escape Covid Lockdown in China

It was Sunday when Dong Wanwan decided to quit her job at the world’s largest iPhone factory and walk home.

It was Sunday when Dong Wanwan decided to quit her job at the world’s largest iPhone factory and walk home.

The 20-year-old had spent the past three months working on production lines at Foxconn Technology Group’s Zhengzhou factory, one of tens of thousands who helped put Apple Inc. together. iPhones that would be shipped around the world. It was a coveted job, one of the highest-paid working-class gigs in the country.

Then Covid started to spread on the production campus. The factory went into a “closed loop” and closed off the gigantic complex from the outside world. Trash piled up in the hallways. Food was harder to get. Many who became infected said they were forced to live on bread for a while.

Then Dong picked up her 19-year-old brother and embarked on a journey that involved walking about 40 kilometers (25 miles), with luggage in tow, to get home. The journey to a small town southeast of Zhengzhou took nearly nine hours.

“Foxconn really screwed up, I don’t think many people would want to go back. I know I wouldn’t,” Dong told Bloomberg News.

In Xi Jinping’s China, millions of people live in fear of being caught in an abrupt lockdown and forced to fend for themselves — a nightmare scenario that has become more common this year as cities from Shanghai to Chengdu grind to a halt amid the virus. It was no different within Foxconn’s huge working-class population, a contingent of some 200,000 people who were forced to share cramped dormitories with up to 11 other people.

Something snapped over the weekend, as hundreds if not thousands of workers walked, hitchhiked or dived into their savings to escape the Covid flare-up. Their collective ordeal was captured in videos and photos that flooded social media in China, exposing the toll of Covid Zero, a policy that is already rocking parts of the world’s second-largest economy and global supply chains. While it is still largely popular to avoid the magnitude of death seen in places like the US, there is a push back against the strategy emerging. Videos of workers walking home with their luggage along highways received hundreds of likes on Douyin, the Chinese version of TikTok.

For Dong, the experience was much more visceral.

It started when she went into quarantine after reporting a cold in late October. She developed a fever of 39.5 degrees Celsius (103.1 degrees Fahrenheit) and was unable to get out of bed. Dong tried calling an employee helpline and then nearby hospitals. None of her calls came through.

Even a messaging group for Foxconn employees set up on WeChat — the WhatsApp-like platform most Chinese religiously use as a real-time forum — went silent despite multiple pleas for help. Without Dong’s line supervisor, who had her colleagues send food and medicine, she would be out of stock.

Sympathetic bystanders

That experience sealed her decision. Dong left for a small town near Kaifeng, in the southeast, at 8 a.m. Sunday, and embarked on what would become a nine-hour trek across the open plains of Zhengzhou.

Dong got a lot of help along the way. Despite Zhengzhou being effectively locked down, sympathetic residents, warned about the mobilization on social media, left bottled water and snacks along the main roads. Those acts of kindness, captured in detail on Douyin, cheered her up. She and her brother even managed to drive part of the way on the back of an open truck.

Explore Bloomberg’s China Covid Outbreak Dashboard at the Terminal

Dong got help in part because these desperate experiences are becoming commonplace in China, sparking a tidal wave of resentment. While the strict measures have kept China’s official Covid death toll below 6,000, they are exacting economic costs, fueling discontent and isolating the country from the rest of the world.

As the virus mutates into more and more transmissible variants, stopping its spread has become a Sisyphean task: China reported 2,675 new local Covid cases for Sunday, 802 more than the day before, marking the largest nationwide increase in infections since Aug. 10 marks.

saves lives

Many Chinese observers expected Xi to reverse what has become a signature policy when he took the stage at the Communist Party Congress on Oct. 16. Instead, he defended the no-tolerance strategy as a strategy that saves lives, and offered no forward when it is likely to end.

This is how long experts see China clinging to Covid Zero

It’s unclear how many employees have left Foxconn in recent days. Dong said the conversation between her colleagues was in the thousands, although that could not be immediately verified. The company has made efforts to mitigate the potential disruption, raise wages and arrange backup for its other Chinese factories if assembly lines in Zhengzhou were to shut down. The company has repeatedly emphasized that employees are the top priority.

Dong said she didn’t know much about that and focused on her journey instead.

It helped that the local government eventually intervened, she said. It was 4 p.m. by the time the siblings finally reached an ad hoc rally point that officials had set up to transport departing Foxconn workers back to surrounding towns.

Dong estimated that there were about 500 people waiting for buses. From there, they were sent to a quarantine facility that had been converted from a primary school and eventually reached their hometown, although they were still subject to China’s Covid rules.

“I was completely exhausted from walking. I got a huge blister filled with blood,” she said.

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