The wheezing bus pulled in late from the slums, so Carmen Hernández was practically jogging toward the clinic now. It had opened 20 minutes ago, and she needed to be early. Late meant lines, and the 49-year-old mother of five couldn’t wait.
She was wasting away.
Her high cheekbones were protruding more, and the headaches were getting worse. A fearless tough talker, she didn’t flinch at the crackle of gunfire on her street. But this was different. She’d dropped eight pounds in four weeks. She was scared.
“I should be at the clinic already,” she said, her voice on edge.
That would be the state infectious disease clinic, where a doctor in July had said the words that meant Venezuela’s chronic shortages had finally ensnared her. With the economy collapsing, many things were hard to find. But this was her Viraday, the HIV drug keeping her alive.
“We have none left,” the doctor had told her. “Try again in August.”
So an hour after first light one August morning, she was doing just that. Her eyebrows furrowed as she approached the clinic’s black gates.
Doctors inside were struggling to cope with a surging HIV/AIDS crisis that experts fear could become the worst in Latin America in years. In a country where a six-pack of condoms — which can prevent transmission — costs almost a full day’s minimum wage, the number of newly infected patients was jumping. Surging prices and shortages of medicines and food, meanwhile, were hitting those already infected, with increasingly devastating consequences.
“Hola, mi amor,” a grinning guard at the gate said, sizing up Hernández. She couldn’t afford breakfast, but she had managed blue eye shadow and a dash of fuchsia on her lips that matched her skintight leggings. His smirk said he knew she was not from around here — a middle-class district. This woman was pure Catia, one of the capital’s toughest slums.
“What are you looking for today, my love?” he said.
She took a second, hugging herself in a knockoff Adidas jacket that hid the loose skin from her rapid weight loss.
“Viraday,” she said.
“I need Viraday.”