Brexit and my body

Like many, life has been a complete stress fest for reasons mostly out of my control in the last few months so I thought the enforced downtime of my Christmas quarantine would be a good chance to write a blog or two. Problem is, I’ve just been sitting in my parents’ loft working and then listening to Brexit unravel, again. This perhaps explains where the following blog came from.

When is a good time to emigrate? The answer probably isn’t weeks into a painful treatment for endometriosis, a month before the UK is scheduled to leave the EU just as the world is about to enter a pandemic. You can guess what I did. In my defence, I couldn’t have known about the pandemic. 

I mentioned a few blogs back that I moved to Belgium for a job. What I didn’t mention was that when I interviewed for the job I had one hot water bottle tied around my waist, another shoved in between my legs and during the meeting I squeezed my stressball in half. I was in a hell of a lot of pain and I was interviewing in the full knowledge that it was perfectly possible, likely even, that if I got the job then my body would not be able to hack a 40 hour work week, especially with such a big change of scenery. I tried it anyway, to varying degrees of success. There are weeks when I feel like I should never have doubted myself or my body, and then there are weeks when I regret not raising a white flag. I am still not very good at listening to my body when it tells me it’s struggling, except and always in hindsight. 

There are plenty of things that haven’t helped me manage endometriosis over the last 18 months, my own foolishness and the pandemic included, but would you like to know one thing that has consistently complicated things? The British Government and its insistence on dicking about with Brexit. 

When I first moved to Brussels I was an intern, which unfortunately leaves you in a unique kind of limbo in Belgium. When I say limbo, I mean there are very few grounds on which you can access health insurance like the rest of the working population. I learnt this, unfortunately, when I passed out a few weeks into my Brussels adventure. I was able to access great healthcare, but it was out of pocket. Now the out of pocket prices aren’t astronomical (relative to countries like the U.S, not as much to the free-at-the-point-of-use NHS) but even on a decent intern’s salary and with my body’s record, I knew paying out of pocket wasn’t sustainable. 

Shortly before I moved, I renewed my European Health Insurance Card (EHIC). I did it almost as a joke, but when another Brexit day came and went without anything happening, I decided to see if my status as an EU citizen had any last minute perks. It did, my EHIC gave me health insurance as if I were a regular employee in Belgium, not because I was an intern, not because of the NHS, just because I was an EU citizen. Problem was, I had no idea at what point Brexit would turn off the coverage. The insurers in Belgium said they didn’t know yet, so I wrote to my (conservative, Boris-championning) MP in the UK, whose response was unsurprisingly useless.

When your body has become an incredibly uncertain place to live and suddenly your healthcare is reliant on a precarious political situation, you begin to become quite scared of your body in new, very unnerving ways. This anxiety over if and when my health insurance might stop made my doomed mission of avoiding medical intervention that much easier because I relied on the fact that my health insurance was limited in ways I couldn’t fully know. Regardless, my European health insurance got me through the chickenpox and other unexpected gifts from 2020. Yet every time a doctor referred me for an outpatient treatment or investigation, a new gynaecologist or a colonoscopy, they recommended I wait until either the Brexit negotiations were clearer or until I had a job with health insurance.

Fortunately, my employment situation became more secure and my health insurance should now be unaffected by the end of the Brexit transition period, though I can’t say the same for my right to live or work in Belgium. I am so lucky but I can’t help think of the Brits who will move to Brussels for internships, which are already out of reach to many since they have a reputation for being poorly paid, and how they are going to do so without any health insurance options, especially if there is no deal. At one point when I was trying to sort this whole mess out someone advised me, “just don’t get sick”, a deeply disturbing attitude that I regretfully expect a lot of interns to adopt in the coming months. What’s more, through my work I have had the chance to see the innovations that come from European funding, especially related to health. My skin crawls at the idea that British researchers and innovators won’t have access to these opportunities anymore. 

So when my MP wrote to me in October 2019 that “the PM has secured a new deal which will allow us to avoid a No Deal Brexit and leave the EU with a deal … If you need any specific support relating to your condition, please do let me know,” not only was he apparently lying about the avoidance of a No Deal Brexit but he was ignorant of the fact that the specific support relating to my condition that I needed was for my government to create an environment where I could make the best decisions for my health based on my body’s needs, without factoring in Brexit negotiations. All I needed was the basic commitment from my government not to use human lives as political pawns. 

My situation was nothing compared to the precarity Boris Johnson’s government consistently plunge lives into every day but I hope it’s yet another reminder that negotiating policy has real-life consequences before the (likely bad) policy is even made. Everyone keeps talking about the uncertain times we’re living through because of the coronavirus pandemic, which is undeniably true, but let’s not forget that through the Brexit negotiations, the British government has continually chosen to create more uncertainty, for reasons I can only attribute to delusions of grandeur. 

I know a lot of people have news fatigue at the moment but we can’t let a bad Brexit slip through because of this, I recommend you give Femi Oluwole a follow for some hard truths. I’ll be writing to my MP again but maybe yours will be more helpful than mine?

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