The Abbott government’s refusal to provide direct assistance to west African countries locked in a grim — and losing — battle against the Ebola virus stands as one of its more bizarre decisions.

This is a government that has sent RAAF crews and special forces soldiers into harm’s way in Iraq in order to bomb Islamic State militants. To do so, the Prime Minister says, is “in the interests of civilisation”. But for Abbott, sending Australian personnel to help contain Ebola is “irresponsible”. Indeed, the government has gone so far as to question the opposition’s integrity for raising the issue, as if it’s a particularly low road of political populism by Labor to ask why we’re not doing more to fight a disease that is in our own interests to suppress as quickly as possible.

Even the (often inarticulate) Health Minister Peter Dutton has struggled to come to terms with his own government’s contradictory stance. Oddly, Dutton has suggested he’s happy to send medical teams to the South Pacific if there’s an outbreak of Ebola there, which is perhaps a fine sentiment, but sending people to where Ebola isn’t doesn’t really address the core issue: Australia appears indifferent to the efforts of west African countries to fight a disease that has already claimed thousand of lives.

We like to see ourselves as a confident nation that doesn’t shirk responsibility. At the moment, we look like an insular, feeble lot ready to use any excuse to avoid helping some of the most desperate people on the planet.